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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dickinson is a dramedy that imagines beloved poet Emily Dickinson as a rebellious teen and contains some mature content. Teens in the show talk in modern speech but wear period-correct dress and are concerned with period-correct subjects such as marriage. However, they also do such modern things as having affairs and taking drugs at parties, like in an episode in which Emily and her siblings and friends throw a house party and take opium. In other scenes, teens and adults drink and smoke cigarettes and pipes. Sexual content is mature but very little skin and no actual sexual contact is shown besides passionate same- and opposite-sex kissing. A typical scene shows two women in bed, and one reaches under the other's skirt; the camera then cuts to her partner's ecstatic face and footage of exploding volcanoes. Two women have an affair, despite the fact that one of them is engaged to the brother of the other. Emily's mother pressures her to marry as soon as possible, and to "know her place" as an obedient mom, wife, and housewife. Violence is rare, but we do see a chicken being plucked and a man preparing to cut a chicken's head off (the camera cuts away before the blow). Language is infrequent but includes "bulls--t," "dammit," and "hell." Lines about the "proper place" of women and people of color may be hard to hear, but are period-correct and the show's sympathies are clearly with the downtrodden. Characters demonstrate empathy and self-control as they work to find ways to live authentic lives despite repressive social expectations.
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What's the story?
In our time, Emily DICKINSON is one of the most celebrated poets in history. But in the late nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) was just a frustrated teen, living with her celebrated town-father dad (Toby Huss) and her disappointed mother (Jane Krakoswki). Her parents want her to settle down, learn how to be a good housekeeper, get married, and have kids, in that order. But Emily wants something more, and passionately writes poetry all alone in her room. One of her frequent subjects: best friend/secret lover Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who's engaged to Emily's brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe), but in the meantime is Emily's favorite (and sometimes only) partner in crime.
Is it any good?
Destined to take its place amongst such teen TV classics as My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, this series is fresh, original, gorgeously loopy -- and absolutely enchanting. Hailee Stanfield makes a mesmerizing Emily Dickinson, all hemmed-in outsize longings in an era when women weren't supposed to feel such things, particularly for same-sex best friends engaged to one's brother. But Sue and Emily have an undeniable spark, and watching them inhabit one of the most joyful queer relationships ever depicted on the small screen is one of Dickinson's distinct delights. When Sue and Emily don a dead acquaintance's male clothing to sneak into a no-women-allowed Amherst lecture, the two are so electrically happy to experience a few moments of freedom together that they dance around the room, elated. "Why would men want to bar women from learning?" wonders Sue. "Maybe they're afraid if we figure out how the world works, we'll take over," returns Emily.
Later, what they learn about volcanoes in said lecture comes back to bear, as Sue tells Emily that she can relate to that kind of earth-shattering explosion -- and shows her, in a transcendently sexy scene that depicts Emily having her first orgasm. Didn't expect that in a drama about Emily Dickinson, did you? The teens of Dickinson talk to each other in modern speech ("What up, Emily?"), they throw a riotous house party with opiates, makeout sessions, and twerking, and they're rebellious and bursting with energy in a way that feels genuine. We all know how Emily's story is going to turn out -- she died a recluse with a trunk full of poetry no one even knew she was writing -- but it sure is a delight to meet her as a teen with her whole life ahead of her.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about period TV shows. Where is it acceptable to draw the line between historical retellings and pure fiction? What purpose does a highly dramatized story like this one play? Can Dickinson be relied on to teach viewers anything? Would it have been more or less successful if the entire story was contrived?
Emily Dickinson lived during a period when wealthy women weren't encouraged to work or have interests other than marriage and children. How did that affect her life and her literary output? How are these constraints depicted on this show? Is Emily easy to relate to? Do women in this day and age share her concerns and problems? How would her life be different if she were not rich and connected?
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