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'Dickinson' review: Emily Dickinson as millennial? Nice try

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in "Dickinson," premiering

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in "Dickinson," premiering November 1, 2019 on Apple TV+. Credit: Apple TV+

SERIES "Dickinson"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on AppleTV+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld, the "Pitch Perfects") is an aspiring poet living a sheltered and nearly repressed life in 19th- century Amherst, Massachusetts. Her mother (Jane Krakowski) insists she leads a life as a proper lady, and her father (Toby Huss), concurs. He flies into a rage when he learns she has agreed to publish a poem in the local high school (or the equivalent) newspaper. But as repressive a life as this is, she's also a free spirit with a rich interior life, and richly erotic exterior one too: Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), betrothed to her brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe), is her secret lover. Emily writes her world-shattering poetry late into the night, each poem opening a door to her heart.  Some of this series was filmed at Old Bethpage Village Restoration.   


MY SAY Nearly a century and a half after her death, Dickinson has now become whoever we want her to be. A rebel? Fine. Protofeminist? Sure. Iconoclast … prophet … rock star. Yes, yes, and yes. "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," she once advised, almost certainly unaware how that would one day apply to the many truths now told about her. Which, by the way, is fine: Great poems shouldn't be reducible to one absolute meaning, nor great poets.

But still, Wiz Khalifa cast as the grim reaper in her poem, "Because I Could Not Stop for Death?" A slant, perhaps, too far?

Attired in top hat, black gloves and tinted shades, he appears late in the first episode then promptly, inevitably, steals his scene because nobody beats the Wiz.  As he takes a long drag on a giant blunt, he tells Emily that her "immortality won't come from following the rules [but] from breaking 'em." Billie Eilish's "Bury a Friend" tracks during the hallucinatory moment, as suddenly one more unexpected "truth" presents itself: Dickinson just might be Eilish too

Ridiculous as all this might seem and — let's face it — pretty much is, the Wiz scene is still the single best stretch over the three episodes Apple offered for review because it promises something entirely new and radical. In that moment, "Dickinson" seems ready to whisk viewers to a place they've never been before. But he promise is soon swept away, and "Dickinson" goes back to being just another humdrum teen dramedy suitable for The CW. 

That's a shame because meek, mild "Dickinson" is otherwise onto something, at least in theory. By framing each episode within the framework of a specific poem, the series has a near-perfect device to explore Dickinson's expansive imagination.   "Wild Wild Nights!" — the third episode — may only be twelve-or-so lines long, but (to paraphrase another famous poet) those lines also hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. What does "Dickinson" do with the material? Emily holds a wild party and — presumably because she didn't score any weed off of Wiz — gets everyone high on opium. Another slant too far.

This "Dickinson" clearly loves Dickinson but loves more the prospect of welding her sensibilities with those of your archetypal millennial. The soundtrack is a mixtape of songs that bring Emily right up to date, and then some, from Lizzo's "Boys" to a Lil Wayne/ G Eazy cover of "I Like Tuh."  Steinfeld's Emily is so insistently modern that all she's missing is the new iPhone 11.

 Steinfeld is good, the cast too and the show is not terrible either. What it's forgotten is that while we're all free to make Emily Dickinson into whoever we want, at least make her interesting. Emily deserves as much. 

 BOTTOM LINE The Belle of Amherst as 21st century millennial, with predictable results.     

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