In the past, pop culture has portrayed Emily Dickinson as something of a lonely spinster—a weird recluse who spent her days gardening and writing poems that wouldn’t be published until after her death in 1886. It’s true that Dickinson never married and preferred isolation in her later years, sure, but there’s so much more to her story. And Dickinson, now available for streaming on Apple TV+, is here to tell it.
“Emily Dickinson’s life was defined by these great ironies,” explains series creator Alena Smith. “She wrote nearly 2,000 poems, one of the greatest bodies of work ever written in the English language, and almost none of it was ever published or recognized while she lived. How she found the will to keep going as an artist and where that drive came from was so fascinating to me.”
Smith’s vision: Use the 1850s—a crucial period in Dickinson’s life—as a lens for today. The result? A fresh coming-of-age tale starring Hailee Steinfeld as the titular poet. While the setting is squarely in the 19th century, Dickinson draws parallels to the present through modern music and winks at current events. In episode one, for example, Dickinson imagines meeting Death (played by Wiz Khalifa, naturally) while “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish blares in the background. In another, a period-appropriate dance ends with everyone twerking.
Using these 2019 updates, Smith explains, gives viewers a direct look into Dickinson’s inner life—this is a woman who’s at war with her rigid Victorian society. “If Emily Dickinson was an artist who was quite misunderstood in her own time, maybe we can understand her better in ours,” Smith says. “Just as Emily’s poems were breaking the rules and ahead of her time, this show is just trying to catch up with her in a way.” So Dickinson is not a literal transcription of Dickinson’s life—think of it more as a translation. Everything is rooted in fact, just with a 21st-century twist.
Steinfeld found another parallel between Dickinson and today’s millennial women. “In the show Emily goes back and forth about, ‘Do I even want to have an audience?’ Because all you want when you don’t have one is to have one. And then you start to actually get into the reality of having an audience, and you’re like, ‘This could be the worst possible thing ever.’ I think that has a lot to do with what millennials are dealing with today. You can seek attention and receive it [with social media], but once you get it and realize it’s not what you want, you kind of can’t turn back.”