This article is part of our Mash’O’Meter review series, where Mashable India delves deep and obsessively into movies and shows. Sit back, grab a cuppa. This is going to be a long ride.
If I told you that the first of Apple TV+’s offerings is a fictional-biographic adaptation of a literary figure you’d probably question it before inquiring after the star cast. And once you have that information, you’d perhaps settle in and give it’s pilot a watch. Dickinson starring Hailee Steinfield as the American poet is as strange to watch as it’s subject is to understand (it took hundreds of years of research). Before we dive into it, no, it isn’t a biography for book nerds. The series is caught up between a dramedy and a teen show. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me explain how the life of a poetess from the 19th century became a regular teen comedy.
Alena Smith’s Dickinson makes no effort to give you a history lesson because it doesn’t have to. Hailee’s Emily With Ella Hunt’s Sue, Tody Huss’ Edward Dickinson, Adrian Enscoe’s Austin Dickinson and Jane Krakowski’s Mrs Dickinson are fresh characters inspired by textbook accounts but that doesn’t mean their re-telling should be plain. Emily, the hermit poet lived a life of seclusion while remaining largely unpublished but that doesn’t mean her life was boring. It’s no wonder that the other pieces of pop culture around her are all about ‘wild nights’ and scandalous parties. Her life was lit and with that promise, Apple TV+’s Dickinson kickstarts its literature-inspired series.
Writing Dickinson into a sexy teen comedy
Dickinson isn’t by any means, a modern version of the poet’s story. The show retains the stylistic elements with every intention of creating a period drama in its mise en scene and costumes. It also keeps to the biographical findings of her real life and you’ll find evidence of the writers’ thorough study. The show manages this time leap into an era of, say, Riverdale with its language. Dickinson’s fast-paced narrative has no time to kill on the decorous language of the poet’s time so it sticks to the modern tongue. You’ll hear Emily calling out society’s “bullshit” in those exact words. And that’s precisely where it becomes teen series for me. From those very dialogues, comedy is derived. I personally find the use of everyday lingo in the description of dramatic literary prose hilarious you’ll find it funny too. Emily was a famous spinster all her life and lived very much dependent on her family. She was in love with her best friend Sue for as long as she lived in her hometown and her queerness brings a fair chunk of the provocative hooks to egg the drama on. Translate these aspects of her life keeping her teenage years in focus and you have the perfect plot of a teenage drama. Now imagine what goes down when Emily’s parents are out of town and the kids are left to play. Add a hypocrite dad who spouts political agenda and a homely mother with a handsome yet gullible brother who has access to the best schools while she doesn’t and you have a relatable story. Dickinson manages to transcend time and engage its viewers without alienating the non-readers of classics for most of the part.
What’s up with the bass-heavy soundtracks?
The trailer warns you about the background score of the show and at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be fitting for its subject. Okay, this might be an unpopular opinion but the music of Dickinson is amazing. Running on electronic dance music with drops, the show sets highschool party vibe. And when it isn’t setting up a celebratory tone, it’s playing backdrop to teen angst and melancholy. The show’s music is something you’d easily find on How To Sell Drugs Online (Fast) or practically any know with today’s high schoolers with all their edgy music taste.
But how much of it is poetry?
Poetry announces itself in the titles of the episodes and the overlay of text when Hailee’s Emily sits at her desk to write. Teen Emily is obsessed with Death (played by Wiz Khalifa, not even kidding) as she imagines him arrive in a carriage to whisk her away from her mundane country life. Her fantasies run wild and result in poetries ranging from ‘I could not stop for Death’ to ‘Wild Nights-Wild Nights’. She sets about the task of creating what would become immortal pieces of poetry but the show fails to set it in the narrative. There is a sense of fragmentation that seeps in between the action of the show and the poetries written (re-written) on it. You won’t exactly be convinced that Hailee’s Emily wrote those words. And somewhere, the main attraction of the show is skewered between all the drama and the sex and the scandal. Most of these doubts will be dismissed only through the acting chops of Ella Hunt. Emily and Sue and their palpable chemistry is what runs this show and the poems largely end up taking a backseat.
Adapting Dickinson into a modern feminist narrative
While the first section of the article focuses on the ‘how’ of adapting Emily’s story, this one is all about exploring the ‘Why’. Why would you unearth a world of poetry and dig up Dickinson? Well, to be fair, it has always been Emily’s time. The poet was way ahead of her times in her radical political ideas and her resolve to crush patriarchy. A young, determined, queer and smart girl is exactly the feminist idol we need and the show revels in this piece of relevance. Emily Dickinson is one of the predecessors of women in literature and woke women in society as well. It only makes sense that her narrative survives the time leap and makes total sense to kids who have probably fallen out of the habit of reading. Feminism, however, is overwritten into the show and after a while, it looks like its being forced into the action of the episodes. That’s one of the few complaints of an otherwise woke show with an amazing concept.
Dickinson loses its way between serious dramedy and delivering a feminist re-telling of America’s greatest poetess. The first three episodes will leave you wondering what the central point really is. Is it the scandals? The opportunity to either oversimplify the complex character that she was? Or the extra efforts to make it a plot relatable enough for the current millennia. Dickinson overcompensates for its serious subject and refuses to take itself seriously in doing so. A literature nerds advice? Watch the show just to watch Hailee’s Emily live her life as a woke girl with a lot more agency than she had while she lived. Skip it if searching for references and outdated moors aren’t your thing.
Dickinson will be available on Apple TV+ on November 1, 2019