Dickinson weighs the real world and fantasy in enervating party episode [Apple TV+ review]

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Finn Jones & Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson
Finn Jones and Hailee Steinfeld talk about the future in this week's featherweight episode.
Photo: Apple TV+

Dickinson rocks the party this week on Apple TV+ as Sue hosts a salon and Emily tries to boost her confidence long enough to be proud of herself in public.

The show’s tightrope walk of purposeful frivolity keeps butting up against its desire to say and do things of real substance. It’s the rare show that can pull off such a feat. And so far, Dickinson seems too interested in strained wordplay to quite get there.

Dickinson ‘Forbidden Fruit a Flavor Has’ review

Hailee Steinfeld’s portrayal of poet Emily Dickinson often is not enough of a challenge to the effortlessly charismatic performer. Lately she’s been pushed into roles like this, that rely on a kind of inflated awkwardness, which she sells better than anyone else who could plausibly play the part. She did it most marvelously in Edge of Seventeen and again in Bumblebee, so by now she’s something of an expert at the Emily Dickinson character, as written here.

Nevertheless, it’s a good idea for the show to allow her crises of confidence to take center stage. She fidgets and doubts herself with more managed exteriority than golden age Hugh Grant. And the party thrown by Sue serves a prime showcase.

Emily is excited by the prospect of finally being taken seriously. However, her hopes are dashed when the salon-goers tell her that her publisher, Sam Bowles (played by Finn Jones) always sleeps with the artists he supports. Just like that, her night is ruined and her confidence shattered.

Ayo Edebiri in <em>Dickinson</em>. The actress deserves better.
Ayo Edebiri deserves better.
Photo: Apple TV+

‘You’re Crazy and I Like it!’

Once again, Dickinson‘s balance of power and perspective is a little off this week.

The B plot about Sue’s desire to be seen as important comes off as deliberately stunted and ridiculous. Samuel is obtuse and distant to her, to cover up that he’s helping freed slave Henry “Box” Brown (Ade Otukoya) into the salon to speak about his journey to freedom and helping the cause of Black liberation. When his plan is revealed, Sue’s quest for visibility seems even more foolish. How can a wealthy woman’s party planner aspirations compete with ending slavery?

That proves triply true of the C storyline about Lavinia and Joseph trying out sexual role play. (Lavinia is to Dickinson what Imogene is to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an unconvincing paean to a very particular brand of wealthy white feminism.) Not that Dickinson hangs around to listen to Brown’s speech. Emily and Bowles leave right away to flirt and talk about her future instead.

This week in millennial-speak

Every episode of Dickinson incorporates a nod to the way modern teenagers speak that I can’t help but feel will age just as poorly as the social attitudes of the 19th century the show is criticizing with its up-to-the-second-yet-already-old millennial turns of phrase.

This week, we get Joseph saying that they’ll be spending a quiet night in with the phrase “novels and chill.” And an excited Sue crowing “I’m a tastemaker!” and then “I can’t be seen in the same dress twice.” It’s all very bad.

The show is always at its worst trying to appeal to whatever imaginary portion of the audience wants to hear characters in corsets and waistcoats say “bro” or whatever. No one actually wants that, and they definitely don’t want an all-30-something writer’s room’s best approximation of how teenagers talk. Hayes Davenport has written for this show, so it shouldn’t still remind me of a Hollywood Handbook bit.

Dickinson has a real chance to become a show remembered for more than its grabby trailers and images and the idea of a costume drama where people all but say “insta story” to let everyone know they’re not doing things traditionally. In order for that to be the case, the show must get less cute by half.

It will remain a sitcom even as its hero becomes one of the most important literary figures in history, unless it decides to drop the need to please.

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.