It’s difficult to be too hard on a pilot of any series. At least, it should be, because more often than not a pilot is not indicative of how a show will turn out through the course of a season. I don’t know if that will be the case for Dickinson, Apple’s first comedy series for Apple TV+.
[Editor’s Note: This post will contain some minor spoilers for the episode, but this isn’t meant to be a total recap of the events that take place.]
First, the particulars: Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) feels cramped in her day-to-day life helping her mother (Jane Krakowski) and sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), with the chores. She tries to rage against the machine as much as she can, but there is only so much room she’s given as a young woman during that time period.
The first episode serves as a means to introduce most of the primary characters in the series. Screen time is provided to Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), Austin Dickinson (Adrian Enscoe), and Edward Dickinson (Toby Huss), and we get to see them all interact and bounce dialogue off one another.
The first episode was directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Halloween).
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the episode itself. This is a half-hour comedy series, so you should expect there to be plenty of levity. And I can say that some of the jokes definitely land pretty well, at least for me. The first episode has a lot going on, and it tries to cram all of it in the 33-minute runtime, for better or worse.
We start with a history lesson on Emily Dickinson, telling us that the young poet was never published while she was alive, and her poetry was only discovered after her death. Over 2,000 poems were found, it turns out, most of them wild and far more imaginative than many would have believed for the time.
We then dive right in. Dickinson wakes up at 4:00 am to start writing, but she’s interrupted by her younger sister and told its time to do chores (in this case, get some water). She asks why her brother can’t do it and she’s reminded that he’s a boy, letting the audience know that women are tasked with the daily grind.
First, I just want to say that this show, despite the fact it starts with a history lesson, is not historically accurate beyond the costume and production design. You aren’t going to hear any of the Dickinson family speaking in the colloquial American English of the 19th century, or anyone in the show for that matter. The prose has been updated for current-century dialogue, so if you were hoping for something else you’ll be disappointed. (Though, to be fair, the trailers for this show never suggested anything otherwise…see for yourself.)
This is only really an issue in my book when it comes to the music. It’s just so . . . out of place that it’s kind of distracting. Not that there’s a whole lot going on in the story department to be a real issue, but it feels like the episode itself could do without the rap or hip-hop scattered throughout. And this is not me railing against that genre of music in general, it’s just not the first choice I’d go with when dealing with 19th century America.
There’s a moment in the middle of the episode, where Emily’s father says he’s going to run for Congress and he brings up being against slavery. To this, Emily says, “Sometimes I feel like I slave” and I’m not entirely sure if this is meant as a joke or what, but wow. She’s immediately shot down by her mother, which is fine and all, but none of that felt okay.
Like I said above, the first episode of any series – even one that has every episode already shot for proper binge watching – can be pretty rough. Everyone’s just getting into the groove of their characters, adapting to the writing and the dialogue, and so forth. And Dickinson is not an exception.
However, I just want to point out that everyone in the first episode is doing solid work with the material they’re given. That’s especially true for Steinfeld and Hunt, both of whom are easily the most likable and watchable characters in the show. They’ve got a romance brewing between the two characters, made difficult not only by the time period but also by the fact that Sue (Hunt) is marrying Emily’s brother, Austin. As such the pair already have a bit more depth and more to work with than any other character in this episode.
The struggle of Dickinson’s life will be front-and-center throughout the ten episodes, and that’s a bit of a sticking point because, so far, it feels like there are two shows here trying to be one. There isn’t much of a coalescence between the humor and the drama, but, again, I feel like this might have more to do with it being the first episode rather than anything else.
Oh, and before I forget, we also get to meet Death in the first episode, an entity that Emily is infatuated with and hopes will “take her away” from her life as soon as possible. Just wanted to throw that in there because it feels out of place as it sounds, including the carriage pulled by ghost horses that she imagines showing up in the middle of the day when she’s surrounded by people.
There are some bright spots here, Steinfeld and Hunt leading that charge. All I can say at this point is that Dickinson is at least worth giving a shot, and that’s what I’ll do. I’ll also say that it’s good that these episodes are not an hour long, because then they might not be bearable.
As far as a rating goes? I’ll give the first episode of Dickinson, “Because I could not stop,” a half-hearted thumbs up and say that I’m really hoping for the best here.