This program is a curious creature! Its existence a perplexity! Absurd but sincere, pop but abstruse, “Dickinson” pulses with tender attention to the tropes of teen soaps. Wrought on the level of speculative fan fiction, the show—one of many new offerings from Apple TV+—imagines the young Emily Dickinson coming of age in antebellum Massachusetts, like a figure in some emo Brontë fever dream.

Under earlier models of cultural production, “Dickinson,” created by Alena Smith, might have developed into something like a legendary spec script or a cult-favorite failed pilot. But Cupertino seems unafraid to invest in niche content. If this is the direction in which these people are throwing their money, I’d like to request that they cast Helen Mirren as Marianne Moore, in an adaptation of Moore’s unpublished memoir, and also devote a lavish budget to dressing up “The Big Sea,” by Langston Hughes, as a sweeping Harlem Renaissance period piece starring Jeffrey Wright. I would also watch a noirish farce about the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Stranger things have happened in show biz, such as the program under review.

Hailee Steinfeld leads a fine cast. A Transcendental genius and hopeless Romantic, our hero rises dewy in purple night-tide, not unlike a hot vampire in a Y.A. novel. When she rises, flush with lust, to get to her desk and pen her Immortality, she is nearly as dreamy as Ben Whishaw’s John Keats. Because “Dickinson” is deliberately anachronistic, Steinfeld plays the Belle of Amherst with gag-me teen mannerisms and floppy Gen-Z posture. In the third episode, titled “Wild nights,” Emily’s strict parents go away to Boston for the evening. Emily, her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe), and their dippy kid sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) throw a party. Trap music bangs on the soundtrack. On the dance floor, guests ingest opium with lolling tongues, then variously pop their booties and walk a quadrille. Emily hallucinates a gargantuan bee hovering before her, and she dares to ask it to dance. To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee, plus revery; “Dickinson,” cross-pollinating literary history with adolescent fantasy, is happy to get lost in its own fertile ideas about the essence of this rare flower.

Miss Dickinson’s materially comfortable home life is emotionally fraught in a way that explains her ecstatic fancy. For one thing, her father (Toby Huss), an esteemed lawyer with political ambitions and patriarchal gravity, forbids her to publish. (He gives her a self-authored handbill titled “On the Proper Place of Women,” and she balls it up—then retrieves the sheet to jot a fierce line of verse on its blank side.) For another thing, her mother is played by Jane Krakowski, with a dottiness that can curdle into malice, as she badgers her older daughter about getting married and moving out. Meanwhile, brother Austin wants to marry Emily’s B.F.F., Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). At some points, when the talk about the suitability of various suitors gets a little overwrought, “Dickinson” seems made in the understanding that, if you put enough eligible men wearing waistcoats and cravats onscreen, a Jane Austen plot will break out.

About Sue: Harold Bloom was skeptical that the real Emily Dickinson ever shared an erotic embrace with her sister-in-law. “Dickinson” does not share his doubts, and it imagines their relationship as the joining of soulmates, in scenes that are both deeply heartfelt and slightly frisky—they sight-translate a few fragments of Sappho, if you see what I mean. In an episode titled “I have never seen ‘Volcanoes’,” the pair, defying Emily’s father, sneak into a lecture hall to see a vulcanologist discuss earthly pressure and steaming lava. In order to get in, they cross-dress, as if this were “As You Like It,” or, more to the point, “Bosom Buddies.” The tone of “Dickinson” proves unstable, but, at times, the show puts its extreme idiosyncrasy in the service of a universal tale about teen angst and frustrated talent.

If this depiction of Emily Dickinson as proto-feminist spitfire succeeds, it’s as a cracked dramatization of her inner life, in a contemporary idiom, with what feels like minimal interference—and perhaps active neglect—by sensible executives. The show works hard to reinvest Dickinson’s most familiar lines with a surpassing strangeness. In the first episode, titled “Because I could not stop for Death,” Death is played by Wiz Khalifa, in a fantasy sequence where he smokes the poetess out and also gives her a pep talk. What’s more, the show makes Dickinson’s strangeness familiar in its grasp of her artistic spirit, her blazing way of putting interior blisses in tension with eternal agonies to forge an intimate bond with green Infinity.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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