Not a Review of “Dickinson”

So recently we’ve been watching the dramedy series Dickinson on Apple TV+. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Who subscribes to Apple TV+?!” The answer is, nobody; like virtually everyone else who has it, we got a free subscription to Apple TV+ when we purchased some Apple gear last year. Since then, Apple has continually extended the free subscription period, most likely in the hopes that viewers will eventually find a show to get hooked on and will ultimately pay for the service. If that was their plan, it seems to have succeeded, because my wife is most definitely hooked on Dickinson, which is a fictionalized account of the life of the poet Emily Dickinson. Maybe you’ve heard of her.

“You’ll be the only Dickinson they’ll talk about in 200 years.” ― Death

The astute (and even the not-so-astute) watcher of the Dickinson trailer will most likely have discerned that although everyone is dressed in period garb and engaging in period activities, they talk like they wandered in from a John Hughes movie. In this respect it’s sort of the inverse of Romeo + Juliet, in which everyone wore modern garb and engaged in modern activities, but spoke the dialog from the play. Which made things interesting when, you know, instead of stabbing each other with swords, they were shooting each other with guns. As one does.

It’s Romeo the slack-jawed yokel!

I was aware that the Dickinson series existed but hadn’t paid much attention or really throught about watching it until The New Yorker ran an article about it, which I thought sounded interesting. And so one evening, instead of the usual list of sitcoms we’ve been watching during the pandemic, I queued up Dickinson.

Wife: “What’s this?”
Me: “This is Dickinson.”
Wife: “What’s it about?”
Me: “Emily Dickinson.”
Wife (dubious): “Uh, all right.”

My wife then proceeded to watch the first episode of Dickinson quite intently, and it immediately took its place as the first show she wants to watch in the evening. Sadly, this state of affairs cannot last long, as there are currently only 20 episodes across two seasons, so we’ll probably be finished with it by April; even such unaccomplished binge-watchers as ourselves won’t be able to make 20 episodes last a month.

Dickinson amusingly plays with its anachronistic elements. For instance, in one episode, when their parents go out of town, the Dickinson children throw a house party, which has all the elements you would expect from a house party in a show set in modern times: There’s the bitchy clique of mean girls and their clearly-gay friend; there’s dancing; things get a little out of hand when somebody shows up with a tiny vial of opium and everyone takes a drop.

Me: “I’m half expecting Emily’s brother to slide out into the archway while ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ is playing.”

In another episode, instead of everyone watching and discussing a particular television show, everyone is reading the serialization of Bleak House* in Harper’s, and because they’re all on different volumes, they’re all trying and failing to avoid spoilers. Which kind of reminds me of the time a friend and I were both reading The Deathly Hallows and I was farther along in it, although I didn’t realize exactly how much farther.

Me: “Where are you in Deathly Hallows?”
Friend: “I’m at the part where the professor dies.”
Me: “Oh, yeah, Moody.”
Friend (horrified): “What? They kill Moody? I was talking about the professor at the beginning who gets killed by Voldemort’s snake!”

At another point, one character is talking to a Native American townsperson; another character wanders up and expresses surprise upon learning of the Native American’s profession, to which the Native American literally responds, “There are many Native American sailors in this time period.” So, yeah. The characters in Dickinson apparently know they’re in a show that’s set in the past.

Although it’s fictionalized, Dickinson seems to be pretty firmly based in reality. Things keep happening that, when we look them up afterwards, turn out to be accurate. So although we were both surprised when Emily Dickinson rather unexpectedly started kissing another character, we Googled it and learned that it very likely happened. When Emily visits Thoreau at Walden—which, it seems, probably didn’t happen—and it’s mentioned how, in his alleged solitude, his mother brings him food and does his laundry, that also happened. (He also really did start a forest fire, which he offhandedly mentions in a later episode.) When Emily tells a soon-to-be-friend that her father buys her books and begs her not to read them, that’s apparently a direct quote from the real Emily. Speaking of Emily’s father …

Me: “I’ve seen Emily’s father in a bunch of other things.”
Wife: “Does he usually play evil characters?”
Me: “Yes. Well, semi-evil, or at least, kind of sinister. He must have been happy to get to play somebody who isn’t evil.”
Wife: “He may not be evil, but he isn’t very nice to Emily a lot of the time.”**

Another sneaky connection to reality occurs in Season 2, in an episode during which my wife expressed her disbelief that Emily Dickinson would care about winning a baking contest. We looked it up, and lo! Emily Dickinson, poet, meet Emily Dickinson, expert baker. It turns out she not only baked for her friends and neighbors, she even wrote her poems on the backs of cake recipes and flour labels, which is something I speculated she was going to do as a way of sneaking a poem out for wider distribution. Not being much of a poetry reader myself (although I do, believe it or not, have a favorite poem***), I’m not especially familiar with Emily Dickinson’s work, beyond knowing, as just about everyone does—and surely it’s no coincidence that this is the poem that anchors the first episode—the famous opening lines “Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me”. (Dickinson does an expert job of weaving the poems into the show, reciting them in Emily’s voice while the words appear in orange script, as if being written across the screen with a fiery pen.) The show in general, and the poems in particular, tend to be set to music that, while mostly contemporary, does an excellent job of setting the mood, so much so that at least twice an episode my wife requires me to Shazam a song and find out what it is and who’s singing it.

Wife: “I wish I could just get a soundtrack of this show.”
Me: “Maybe there is one. Let’s check Spotify.” (checks Spotify) “Yes, look, someone made a Dickinson playlist.”
Wife: “Is that all the songs?” (realizes the playlist has 145 songs in it) “Ooh! Can you favorite that for me?”

Episodes of Dickinson are about half an hour long and as far as I can recall none has ever put my wife to sleep; although this may fail to impress new visitors to the blog, long-time readers will be well aware of the fact that if my wife is not invested in a show and its characters, she can have trouble making it ten minutes without conking out. In fact it’s fairly routine for me to glance over at her in the middle of The Big Bang Theory or The New Adventures of Old Christine (a couple of 22-minute sitcoms we’ve been watching lately) and discover her snoozing away, such that the next night we have to try to figure out what the last thing is that she remembers and restart the episode from there. No such worries with Dickinson; in fact, she not only stays awake for every episode, she even requires the show to be paused when her attention is diverted by, say, having to feed the fish, or stepping into the kitchen to put a cup in the sink. This is fairly unprecedented since we finished Breaking Bad, and puts Dickinson up in the rarefied territory of that show, and well above Game of Thrones.

Now they just need to make more episodes, so my wife can stay awake in the evenings.

* One character declares that he refuses to read Dickens’s bloated prose because “he gets paid by the word, you know”, which is the exact same reason my wife hates Dickens. So some things never change I guess.
** The relationship between Emily and her father is, of course, one of the central ones of the show. Emily is clearly her father’s favorite, despite his often harsh behavior towards her and his stated disapproval of her literary ambitions; it’s our theory that he secretly admires her for her iconoclasm, and wishes he, too, could escape his expected, respectable role in society. But he can’t.
*** “The Hardness Scale” by Joyce Peseroff, in case you were wondering.

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