A tale set in the 19th century joins the streaming revolution Friday as AppleTV+, the tech giant’s streaming service, makes its debut. “Dickinson” and eight other Apple original series mark the beginning of its entry into territory ruled by Netflix — followed in the next seven months by Disney+, NBCUniversal’s Peacock and Warner Media’s HBO Max.
There’s no question that the fragmented world of television is about to be shattered into thousands more pieces with this looming deluge of new content, but there’s debate over whether the anything-goes days of streaming innovation (see: “Orange Is the New Black”) are behind us and it’s safe fare from here forward.
Apple can’t answer the debate once and for all, but if “Dickinson” is any indication, the bar for experimental and creative productions may still be rising.
The half-hour series is indeed about the great American poet Emily, but don’t expect a “Masterpiece Theater"-style ode to antebellum-era comportment. In Apple’s dark comedy, Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld) spends zero time shut in the parlor listening to the tick-tock of a clock, or counting dust particles.
Instead, the eccentric writer dances to hip-hop at raucous parties, experiments with opium, sleeps with her brother’s fiancée and dismisses the patriarchy as “bunk.”
Heretical as it sounds, this revisionist take on the revered literary figure captures the essence of a woman born before her time, struggling for independence, driven by the need to write.
The series is a smart, funny, irreverent ride — a coming-of-age comedy fused with a rich costume drama. Formal dances are accompanied by a techo/pop/emo/rap soundtrack; Dickinson’s parents (Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss) speak in stiff, period-specific language while all the teens, including Dickinson herself, use modern slang: “That’s the coolest!” “Why are you such a freak?”
The constrained young woman also has a secret relationship with Death, who’s played by Wiz Khalifa in a top hat and black gloves. They go for midnight rides in his ghost carriage, during which she laments her station in life as a woman. “When will you come and take me from this place? I’m ruining the family name,” she says.
“My darling. You’ll be the only Dickinson they talk about in 200 years. I promise you that,” he answers.
Escaping a cloistered girl’s life has never been this lively.
Dickinson lives in Amherst, Mass., with her family, including her tough but vain younger sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), and handsome but unimpressive brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Her best friend is Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who also happens to be her love interest — though they’re soon to become sisters-in-law. So much for life being simpler back then.
Krakowski is an oddly perfect fit for Dickinson’s mother, playing it straight as she talks about her love of housework. “I’d rather scrape the skin off my fingers than get a maid,” she protests.
She wants her willful daughter to be just like her: an expert cleaner and cook. Too bad for Mom that her daughter is the only young woman in a historical comedy bold enough to call BS — literally — when she’s commanded to fetch water or bake bread and her brother is not.
And though Emily has sabotaged all of Mrs. Dickinson’s attempts to marry off her daughter, Mom still tries.
“A male suitor is coming,” she says.
“Great. Who is he this time?” Emily grumps.
“A pig farmer from South Hadley.”
“Yum, sexy,” she snarks.
“Dickinson,” created by Alena Smith, doesn’t go into Dickinson’s adult life, which history has recorded as somewhat tragic. Unmarried, she holed up in her father’s home, rarely stepping outside her bedroom, and wrote a trunk’s worth of poetry. Her work was not published until four years after her death.
Instead, Apple’s unconventional look at an unconventional woman — and American icon — allows her another story. Here, she’s an outspoken free spirit, disobeying her father’s commands in order to compose her famous verse, and in turn rebelling against a society that wants nothing more from her gender than babies, a clean home and hot meals.
The gendered injustice in Dickinson’s world is staggering, as are the discussions about slavery as an industry. Despite all the clever humor, “Dickinson” does cut straight to the more distressing aspects of a society that still hasn’t fully resolved those problems, or even become enlightened enough to admit them.
Most of all, though, “Dickinson” is a fiery, playful and pointed love letter to a troubled soul. You won’t be able to write her off as “the belle of Amherst” again.
Where: Apple TV+
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)