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Apple's Dickinson Will Make You Say 'What Is This?' in the Best Way

Star Hailee Steinfeld and others preview the Apple TV Plus comedy

Liam Mathews

If you think of Emily Dickinson, you probably think of her as the reclusive poet laureate of depression, a troubled genius who lived her life in a small room and whose brilliance was only recognized after her death. You probably don't think of her as "fun." Apple TV Plus' new comedy series Dickinson is here to change that.

Dickinson is a portrait of the artist as a young woman -- played joyously by Hailee Steinfeld -- as she develops her skill as a writer while fighting back against the patriarchy, which takes the form of her disapproving parents, who want to confine her to a life as a wife and homemaker and never let her publish any poetry. She pursues a secret love affair with her future sister-in-law, throws parties and experiments with opium, and generally acts like a lively eccentric you would want to hang out with. Basically, she's a thoroughly modern girl. And to drive that point home, Dickinson's characters talk like teenagers in 2019, twerk to hip-hop, and move through montages soundtracked by of-the-moment musicians like Billie Eilish and Mitski.

"I think that [Emily Dickinson] was a woman who was ahead of her time, and who was certainly not appreciated fully in her own time," creator Alena Smith told TV Guide. "And so maybe we can appreciate her a bit more today."

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Smith became interested in Dickinson in her early 20s when she read a biography of the poet. Dickinson's family dynamic resonated with her. And Smith grew up in New York's Hudson Valley, a beautiful and uneventful region that looks and feels a lot like Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, where Dickinson lived. "There was a lot going on in my mind, maybe more so than in the world around me," Smith said. "And I think Emily Dickinson, her ability to have so much playful irony in her work, and so much persistence in the way that she built this body of work despite practically no recognition while she lived was incredibly inspiring to me as a young artist myself."

When writing the show, Smith wanted "build a collage" out of the facts of Dickinson's life and the images in her poems. "I have in my head so many of her poems and so many facts from a number of biographies and also just random facts about the 1850s in general, and then maybe I start organizing them a bit thematically around a particular poem," Smith said. The show's second episode, for example, is titled after Dickinson's poem "I have never seen 'Volcanoes'" and follows Emily as she dresses like a man to sneak onto Amherst College's campus and attend a lecture on volcanoes, and later has an explosive sexual experience with Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). Smith loved the idea of dramatizing the imagery in Dickinson's poetry. Dickinson wrote about Death taking her on a carriage ride, and on the show the carriage is a sensuous, velvety space, with Death personified by the rapper Wiz Khalifa.

​Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa, Dickinson

Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa, Dickinson


Hailee Steinfeld told TV Guide that when she first got the pilot script she felt it was unlike anything she'd ever read, for many reasons. "It's a period piece, but in ways never feels like one, until you're then introduced to some wild constraint that women and men had in that time and in that time only that we've since broken out of or come such a long way from," Steinfeld said.

Jane Krakowski, who plays Emily's mother (also named Emily), was also struck by how unique the script was. "When you hear that Apple is going to do a comedy about Emily Dickinson, it's already unusual, so let's start there," she said. "So then when you open it, and we're talking and we're dressed as beautiful as we can be in the 1800s, and then Wiz Khalifa comes on and they play 'I Like Tuh,' it's like, 'What is this?' It was so different." She saw it as a great opportunity to bring the voice of a poet from the 1800s to a modern audience. "To see her as a modern woman back in the day, which has many parallels to today," Krakowski said.

"It was a little bit more subversive than I thought it was going to be," said Toby Huss, who plays Emily's father, Edward, "because it takes this girl that's pretty sexually fluid and is an artist and a poet and sort of a much more modern-thinking woman and brings her to today."

Usually "different" is a hard idea to sell, but Alena Smith only pitched Dickinson once. Apple snapped it right up during their buying spree while they were building their initial programming slate for their new streaming service. "I think it was such a perfect meeting of the minds because Apple was doing something new, and I think the show is doing something new, and Emily Dickinson herself was doing something new," Smith said.

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Smith added that it's been exciting being one of Apple's first productions. "I've basically gotten to be at the forefront of building this entire new platform, and having so much freedom to pursue my own artistic vision of this show, which obviously is very specific and weird and hard to communicate in certain ways. And I feel like Apple has just been so supportive of that the whole time."

For veteran actors Huss and Krakowski, who have done broadcast, cable, and streaming shows, the most notable thing about working with Apple was the amount of money the company was willing to put into the project. Krakowski said that she associates Apple with the beautiful aesthetic of their products, and they committed to making the show match that aesthetic.

"We've seen it blown up on a movie screen, and most TV shows can't handle that, when you blow it up that big, and this one actually looks as beautiful as a movie," she said, though she noted that the young people in the show's target demographic are probably just going to watch it on their iPhones.

As for that target demographic, Hailee Steinfeld -- who's an executive producer as well as the star -- said the show has something for everyone. "This is a coming of age story, and I think that appeals to all ages," she said, though she added that she hopes young women in particular will relate, as she did, to how "heroic and iconic" Emily Dickinson really was.

Dickinson Season 1 is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.

​Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson

Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson