emergency discussion

All Hail Dickinson, a TV Show Made Specifically for Literary Weirdos

“This Shakespeare club has too much drama.” Photo: Apple TV+

Jackson McHenry: We’re here because we’ve had to organize an emergency discussion. There was simply no other way around it. When we saw the first few episodes of Dickinson, we were intrigued by the show’s wobbly but clever tone and the way it blends the past with the present. But now that we’ve watched the show’s whole first season, we have to admit that we feel like we’re being trolled. It’s concerning, frankly.

Kathryn VanArendonk: The first moment I suspected that Dickinson was somehow sneaking into my room at night and stealing my deepest unspoken desires from the dark recesses of my brain was in episode three. Emily, high on opium while at a house party, gets her period and collapses in despair. She drags herself across the room like she’s dying, and then stuffs her sister’s handmade cat pillow between her legs because the idea of going downstairs for an actual sanitary napkin is just too hard. This was when I suspected that the show was, in fact, coming specifically for me.

And then it got even better.

Jackson: Here, we should just get the fact out that John Mulaney plays Henry David Thoreau in the show’s fourth episode, which is thematically about the environment but mostly about how Thoreau was a weird dirtbag who made his mom do his laundry. Discussing the fact that Thoreau was a poser is pretty much a pastime for liberal arts majors, but Mulaney makes his version of the guy so deeply odd in a way that elevates all the goings-on. He lives in a tiny cabin with an absurdly large selection of beans. He appears shirtless, and then gets mad at Hailee Steinfeld for asking too many questions. Watch to the end of the episode and witness a post-credits sequence where he defends his genius to a string bean.

Kathryn: The show has a real talent for casting guest stars and small roles. Toby Huss plays Emily’s father, and he’s so great and beardy and expressive. Jane Krakowski is her mother, and at one point she stuffs a giant piece of cake into her mouth in what can only be described as a huge mood.

All the minor characters are excellent, and I’m particularly fond of the snarky mean girl squad that shows up when the Dickinsons throw a party.

Jackson: As the show goes on, it really shines in the group scenes where its weirdo characters can play off of each other — especially the ones where the Dickinson family are all at odds with each other while still pretending to be 19th-century-style polite. (That Apple forked over the money to put everyone in impeccable period outfits and fill their tables with delicious-looking food only adds to the surreal humor.) The eighth episode revolves around a Christmas party, and also introduces Jessica Hecht as a lusty widow and Zosia Mamet as a version of Louisa May Alcott as the ultimate hustler. She deadpans a litany of true facts about herself — she loves to run, she writes primarily to make money and get out of debt — that serves to remind us just how strange and human our literary icons actually were. Also, I will not be able to watch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women without snickering about the line where Zosia–as–Louisa May Alcott dreams up her next book idea: “Okay, yeah, but stick with me, what if one of the sisters dies?”

Kathryn: Louisa May Alcott, as she appears in Dickinson, would absolutely be the most direct attack on me that this show could possibly perform. Except that one episode earlier, the show rolls out an entire Aaron Sorkin political walk-and-talk parody. Then, in the same Christmas episode where Alcott coolly advises Emily to write about soap and get a soap company to pay for it, all the cool kids of Dickinson talk about how obsessed they are with their current favorite book, Bleak House. At one point, a character asks Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) if he’s also been reading the Dickens novel and Austin replies, “Oh yeah, I am mainlining that shit!”

I swear to you that I had to pause the episode and stand up and walk around for a minute before I could calm down enough to keep watching. Nothing revs my personal hype engines faster than a good joke about 19th-century serial storytelling!

Jackson: Not to spoil anything about Bleak House, but I similarly lost my mind when Emily’s sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) gets mad at Austin for spoiling the twist about Esther’s mother. Spoiler culture lives forever! The joke really lands because Austin and Lavinia are a perfect pair of Hark! A Vagrant–style sketches of 19th-century airheads made into flesh, and because the show has more than a little sympathy for them, too. It’s easy to play a game of comparing the 1850s and the present, but especially in its later episodes, Dickinson does such a good job of living in them. There’s one plotline about Lavinia sketching a nude of herself that ends up making you realize how trapped a girl like her would also feel in 2019.

Plus, the seventh episode incorporates a story — a true story, at least according to creator Alena Smith — that Austin dug up a dead baby so he could bury his wife in the graveyard plot next to his own. It’s a delightful detail from the past to exhume, the kind that enhances the comedy of the show. Rather than imagining buttoned-up historical figures going wild in a 2019 way, Dickinson tells us that people were always wild in their own way.

Kathryn: A lot of the humor comes in around the margins. It’s so fun! But I don’t think Dickinson would work as well as it does if it hadn’t figured out that Emily Dickinson, while being a queer goth girl, is also painfully, endlessly, poignantly sincere. It takes a while to settle in, but eventually Dickinson nails this pivot, especially in Emily’s sincerity about her writing career and in the complicated relationship she has with her father. The scenes between Steinfeld and Huss are some of the best of the whole show, and that’s partly because they both dive in with total, unblinking commitment — even though this is also a show where Emily Dickinson hallucinates a giant bee who offers her a drag off his joint.

Smartly, Dickinson doesn’t let its silly, absurd anachronisms be the only things driving the surreality. Often it’ll find an intense scene between Steinfeld and Huss, or pick a moment when Emily’s most obsessed with the idea of her legacy, and use that to jump into one of its dream sequences. There’s one daydream in particular where Emily imagines herself as a published poet, and is both terrified and thrilled to realize she’s become a tattooed lady at the circus. Dickinson figures out how to take that seriously, while also being fully committed to the silliness.

Jackson: As our co-worker Tara Abell put it, this show should probably come with a trigger warning for complicated father-daughter relationships, given how hard the scenes between Huss and Steinfeld are to watch. Their characters are meant to get each other on an emotional and intellectual level, but Edward Dickinson keeps both enabling and restricting his daughter from being her own person. (In addition to the circus sequence, there’s a scene in a Christmas episode where he gifts her a greenhouse and she imagines herself trapped, screaming within it.) The fact that Emily never moved away from her family both allows this show to stick to the format of a sitcom and ties it to elements of a horror story.

That structure also makes Emily’s romantic relationships all the more awkward and tragic. Steinfeld and Ella Hunt do lovely things with the story between Emily and her sister-in-law-to-be Sue Gilbert, and midway through the season, we get a sad little love triangle with the introduction of Edward’s law clerk, a literary nice boy named Ben (played by Matt Lauria, going from Friday Night Lights to cravats). I liked the late-fall wistfulness the show found in each of those relationships, which of course aren’t going to end the way Ben, Emily, or Sue want.

Kathryn: Dickinson is not perfect. It’s not a flawless gem polished to within an inch of its life. There are about 4 million questions to ask about it, not least of which are, “Can it actually be worth me subscribing to yet another streaming service so I can watch it?” and “What even is Apple TV+, surely that is a fake thing, right?” and also, “No, seriously, how did they convince John Mulaney to show up as a shirtless Henry David Thoreau?” All of these are valid questions. But to answer the first question: If you really need to see a show like this, somewhere deep in your heart you already know.

Jackson: Not that I would ever professionally suggest doing something like this, but it is possible to get a weeklong free trial to a streaming service and watch every half-hour episode of a ten-episode series before that week is over.

Kathryn: You could probably watch it twice, if you really made an effort.

All Hail Dickinson, a TV Show Made for Literary Weirdos