When it was originally on: 2019-present
Original network: Apple TV+
Where you can stream it now: Apple TV+
Had I seen it before: No.
What IMDb says: An inside look at the world of writer Emily Dickinson.
Why I picked it: Apple TV+ is one of streaming’s new kids on the block, but of course was greatly overshadowed by the other new kid on the block, Disney+. I wanted to represent the growing variety of streaming platforms, and that meant including a couple of token Apple TV+ shows such as Dickinson. (The other one is The Morning Show in case).
Dickinson also has an intriguing premise. While I’m not at all surprised to see someone doing a series about Emily Dickinson, I’m slightly surprised to see the people doing it go the half-hour comedy direction. There’s other interesting choices happening here, such as casting Wiz Khalifa as Death. This show wasn’t afraid to take risks, and that’s the sort of thing that makes it worthy of The List.
What I liked: Possibly the best thing this pilot does is set up a love triangle between Emily, Sue, and Emily’s brother/Sue’s betrothed Austin. Roughly halfway through, Austin proclaims the engagement, and Emily immediately says the marriage can’t happen because Sue is her “best friend.” Later, we get to see Emily and Sue make out, though it’s still unclear whether or not their relationship has been romantic for some time or if we’re supposed to think this is their first kiss. After some discussion of moving to Michigan with his new bride, Austin ultimately decides to stay in Amherst. Him and his new bride will live next door to Emily.
The one thing I’m most curious about is watching these three characters deal with the precarious arrangement that the pilot sets up. Will Emily and Sue continue their romance in secret? Will Sue try to resist Emily’s advances once she gets married? There’s plenty of opportunity for comedy and dramatic tension here. I also think exploring what happens AFTER a woman marries a man she doesn’t particularly like just to avoid destitution is a more interesting take on Victorian times than Emily fighting with her parents over getting married in the first place.
What I didn’t like: Much of the drama between Emily and her parents revolves around them wanting her to marry, and her not wanting to. Fair enough, that’s how this time period works. Unfortunately, it’s a conflict that’s been done to death and at least in the pilot, Dickinson doesn’t really do anything interesting or original with it. I would’ve much preferred the time spent on this conflict to be spent developing Emily and Sue’s relationship, Emily and Death’s relationship, or even Emily and Austin’s relationship.
I also am questioning the casting of Jane Krakowski as Emily’s mother. Krakowski seems unable to turn off the over-the-stop stage theater acting she’s known for. That’s fine in a show like 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt where the whole point is to have an assortment of kooky characters. But here, Krakowski’s performance seems out of step with the rest of this universe. She feels like an odd choice especially for a role that doesn’t feel like it was intended to be particularly comedic.
This is also one of those “comedies” that really didn’t feel terribly funny. A lot of the “jokes” boil down to “isn’t it funny if people in Victorian times did things like swearing and fucking?” which fell flat for me. Overall, the show is decidedly “pilot-y” in that it’s still figuring out what it’s trying to be. Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Is it a weird ghost story about Emily and her relationship with Death? It’s really anyone’s guess at this point and that lack of clarity is perhaps its biggest weakness.
Speaking of Death… what is up with that? Emily going on carriage rides with Death is an interesting way to get into her brain, especially since writing isn’t really visually interesting. But I’m still not sure what the character of Death is supposed to be. Is he just going to give pep talks to Emily as she needs them? If so, maybe making him a more comedic, upbeat character would’ve worked better. Is he going to have more in-depth existentialist discussions with him? Is he going to be in EVERY episode, or just episodes where Emily is trying to write a poem about death? Another carriage ride or two would’ve gone a long way towards establishing his role in the show. The pilot teases this interesting idea, but also doesn’t really give me any faith that the show can execute it properly.
Also not a fan of the 2010s pop soundtrack with this Victorian set period. The music choices never really heightened the emotional payoff of a scene, and instead felt like a heavy-handed way of saying “We’re not like those OTHER period shows!”
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: While I could certainly see this show evolving into something interesting and amazing, I can’t say that it got there in Episode 1. I would be willing to give it a few more episodes to see if it reaches its potential, but I’m not in a huge rush.