EJ Moreno reviews Dickinson…
Over the first three episodes of Dickinson, the show left me feeling more puzzled than most viewings in recent memory. A show that looks this good, with this strong of a cast and a subject matter that I enjoy? It should feel like a slamdunk, but each episode pushed me further away from the show than the last.
Sometimes it feels like critics need to give things a definitive label of good or bad, rarely admitting something might not be for them. Well, this is a time where I can acknowledge that Dickinson isn’t for me. There’s something about the tone and styling of the show that doesn’t sit well. The show is a period piece with the editing, styling, and dialogue of a modern series. It’s a bit jarring and doesn’t always work. Hearing a song from Lizzo in a show about Emily Dickinson is just all too strange, even if it does get a confused chuckle out of me.
The root of my issue with the style is the lack of commitment to it. Sometimes, it feels like the creators are driving home the newer terms, like Emily’s character used the phrase “Nothing bro, just chilling.” in the first episode. And then sometimes it feels like a straight-up period piece without any hint of the show’s gimmick.
That’s what makes it jarring every time something happens as you get tonal whiplash. The only consistent motif is modern pop music, which sometimes works and other times doesn’t. Finding more songs that work for that character and not just “this sounds cool” will do wonders for the soundtrack.
Oh, and did I mention the rapper Wiz Khalifa plays Death? And it’s probably my favorite scene from the first three episodes. Emily Dickinson is obsessed with the idea of death, so giving the show a physical embodiment of that is needed. Scoring their first interaction together to Billie Ellish’s Bury A Friend is another bold choice, but I felt like the song choice worked for the character and the scene. This moment is where the show correctly found the balance in its odd tone and style. If you want to use modern flairs, make sure they work well for the character.
There aren’t only complaints about the show, which makes it even harder to break down feelings. When a negative arises like less-than-stellar dialogue or odd character choices, there’s something like the solid to balance it out. The show looks great as the production design and cinematography knock it out of the park. All of the Apple TV Plus shows have an expensive look, but this one stands out as a bit more intriguing than the rest.
Other than the modern flairs added, Dickinson is insanely accurate to the real-life stories of Emily Dickinson. From her depression to a flirtation with Sue Gilbert, there’s a lot of research done to nail down the facts of the story. That I admire as they could’ve easily thrown at any real stories and made this an entire work of fiction.
Speaking of that flirtation with Sue, that’s where one of my issues with the script comes in. Emily’s character comes off a bit overbearing with her feelings for Sue. Overbearing is the right word for Emily as a whole, but it comes through the most with her interactions with Sue. The attraction to each other is there and understandable as they relate so much, but Emily doesn’t give Sue much free-will. For someone who complains about how men control women, she comes off that way with Sue. Usually cutting her off or making decisions of her, mostly to service Emily’s feelings for her.
I understand the character of Emily Dickinson, in reality, was a bit brash, but it doesn’t always play well in the show. Instead of coming off as a rebel, sometimes she just bratty. It makes her character tetters on the line of unlikeable just a bit too much, as I mostly agree with her, and then she takes a sharp turn into “nope” territory.
Complaints about the character aside, Hailee Steinfeld knocks it out of the park as the titular character. Most know that Steinfeld is a mega-star already with charisma and charm through the roof, but seeing her as a lead in a show is terrific. Dickinson highlights all of Steinfeld’s skills as an actress.
Thankfully all of the actors are on top of their game. Toby Huss gives an excellent performance as an aggressive man of the time but with a heart deep down inside. The same goes for Samuel Farnsworth, who gives George Gould more layers than in the script. He’s genuinely likable in a show filled with mostly insufferable male characters.
Jane Krakowski is a scene-stealer, but is that surprising for anyone? From 30 Rock to Kimmy Schmidt, we all know Krakowski is going to deliver what’s needed from her. Even when she doesn’t have the best lines, she gives them her usual style that makes you smile. I really need more scenes with Krakowski and Steinfeld, though.
While I didn’t connect with the tone of the show, there’s still a lot of enjoyment here. Dickinson will find a market of fans that will go wild for it. The show is in vain of works like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which were equally hit and miss as well in execution.
Dickinson needs to be seen for yourself to know if the show is a match for you.