Dickinson returns for more modern debauchery [Apple TV+ review]

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Hailee Steinfeld is back for more Dickinson
Hailee Steinfeld returns as Emily Dickinson, history's saddest poet.
Photo: Apple TV+

Dickinson is back against all odds (odds don’t include viewer numbers), bringing another season of anachronistic anarchy to Apple TV+. Can showrunner Alena Smith keep this bauble from shattering long enough to get to the third season?

Dickinson Season 2 opener review

Dickinson is one of those shows that sounds like a pitch meeting that went terribly awry. It’s about the life of famous melancholy poet Emily Dickinson, but it’s got rap music on the soundtrack. The kids playing her and her family and friends curse a lot, and everyone’s gorgeous. Wiz Khalifa plays death, for some reason. That kinda thing.

You can imagine someone walking into a studio with a heartfelt study of the life of a poet not accepted in her time, who leaves having sold that movie Homer Simpson pitches about a talking pie.

If, however, we take at face value that this very scatterbrained show is exactly what showrunner Smith had in mind, then I applaud the imagination required to dream up her version of Amherst. And I wish her luck staying current as the show already shows some strain at staying both historic and current.

Season 2’s very first episode finds someone talking about how Thoreau is “canceled,” with the young society men calling each other “bro.” In the second episode, a white guy said to a native character, “Don’t steal my woman.” His retort? “You stole my land.”

True, but not really the light comic touch the show imagines. It’s all diverting enough but if you open with that it doesn’t portend a season bursting with creativity. Do kids still say “extra“?

Last season on Dickinson

You could be forgiven for not remembering that at the end of last season, the show is, to its credit, designed that way. It’s supposed to feel more like a sweet fever than a progression of events. In short, Emily (played Hailee Steinfeld) was in love with her neighbor, Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who married Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) to keep up appearances. Her parents (Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss) don’t understand her ambitions to be a poet and certainly wouldn’t know what to do with the news that she’s gay as the day is long. And she’s slowly going mad.

You’re caught up.

The second season tackles her mental illness with more immediacy, giving her a spectral presence that haunts her and a series of small challenges (a congenital vision problem, a baking contest, a hunky lit critic) that will place her disorder in a broader context. It’s all fun (at least in the first three episodes) and deliberately short on dramatic heft.

I don’t wanna talk about me

Hailee Steinfeld and Finn Jones are at the center of the second season of Dickinson.
Hailee Steinfeld and Finn Jones are at the center of the second season of Dickinson.
Photo: Apple TV+

If I sound like I’m being cautiously pessimistic, it’s because the idea of Steinfeld anchoring a series about the life of a poet is one of the better things you could possibly get away with at a network. And yes, she remains consistently terrific as Emily Dickinson, but I don’t think the role asks anything of her she hasn’t done before.

Her Dickinson is a little of her characters in True Grit, Edge of Seventeen, Pitch Perfect… it’s a greatest hits, basically. The role obviously plays to her strengths, but the exciting thing about an actress like Steinfeld is that she rises to challenges. Dickinson isn’t a challenge. It’s more of the same, especially after a season of her rocketing between melancholy, romance and comedy OCD.

Dickinson season 2: The first three episodes

Apple TV+ is debuting the first three episodes of Dickinson’s second season together today. And while you will get a kind of pop millennial sugar rush, it feels like a lot of familiar ground for the show. There’s a bakeoff, a seance, a new boarder in the Dickinson house, and a lot of lip service paid to the idea that the writers know that slavery is wrong but the show will continue to be about white people anyway.

It’s fine and it’s silly and everyone in the show is good, but the ensuing episodes better have more than standard sitcom plotting if they want to justify all these resources and amazing performers.

Dickinson season 2 on Apple TV+

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.