Apple TV’s ‘Dear Edward’ Adaptation Is a Downer Drama Elevated by a Strong Ensemble
Apple TV+ is becoming streaming’s leader in tear-jerkers and melancholia. Here we have another series about loss and sorrow, with characters diving into full despair. “Dear Edward” is an adaptation of Ann Napolitano’s bestseller that is heavy on the weeping and light on the hope. It’s an ensemble of wonderful acting, spearheaded by a strong cast, which helps the series be a showcase of talent and not merely a total downer. At heart it’s about the very experience of processing grief, while trying to make sense of why in a tragedy some may survive while others bear the full brunt of loss. Showrunner Jason Katims expands the range of the narrative from the book, giving emphasis to multiple stories and not just readers’ favorite child survivor.
That survivor, 12-year-old Edward (Colin O’Brien), still introduces the series as we see him sitting in a passenger plane beginning to experience some major turbulence. As readers of the book know, the plane will crash, with Edward being the sole survivor. We then whip back into the origins of several of the other characters whose lives will be impacted by subsequent events involving the aircraft. Dee Dee (Connie Britton) is a wealthy socialite whose husband dies in the crash and leaves behind many secrets for her to uncover. Linda (Amy Forsyth) kissed her boyfriend goodbye before he got on the plane. Now she’s left behind pregnant and having to face his judgmental parents. Adriana (Anna Uzele) is a congressional aide who wants to quit her job while dropping off her congresswoman grandmother, who is seen as a trailblazer for Black American women, at the airport. Edward himself will lose his beloved big brother and parents, who were flying the family on a big move from New York City to Los Angeles. Now he must deal with shock and grief while moving in with his Aunt Lacey (Taylor Schilling) and Uncle John (Carter Hudson).
For ten episodes, “Dear Edward” focuses on few themes other than the very experience of grief. The material is stretched thin because the driving plot is akin to a long therapy session with few incentives aside from hoping everyone makes it through okay. Katims settles for a structure similar to NBC’s smash hit “This Is Us,” mixing the past and present to create an emotional drive. The big difference is that in that show, the goal was to create a euphoric state in the viewer. “Dear Edward” sustains sadness for most of its material. But the performances and characters also keep it engaging. A key message is that tragedy and grief can strike anyone. Dee Dee in her early scenes is an entitled society animal, giving orders and issuing hard expectations, then we see her wither, consumed by sadness. She also begins investigating her husband’s secret dealings and relationships and realizing her picture-perfect marriage was far from that. It’s a strong character that unpeels with every episode, later revealing to have been born outside of privilege, which explains why she clings so desperately to her status.
Other characters do go slightly more for that feel-good jump after the tragedy, particularly Adriana, who feels compelled to return to politics and also develops a more socially aware consciousness. During a meeting of victims’ relatives, a man mistakenly walks in thinking it’s a meeting to address tenants facing brutal landlord policies and it gets the wheels turning in her mind. It’s one of the many story threads crammed into this show, including how John and Lacey have suffered many miscarriages and their marriage is on the rocks, meaning taking in Edward can give them a real chance at raising a family. Other narratives feel like the show is grasping to fill in space, like a needless storyline involving a first responder at the crash site who deals with crack addiction. There’s simply no real point to this diversion and it adds little to what the series conveys with its central characters.
As for the title character, Edward’s storyline is one of the strongest, probably because it’s the main one from the novel and therefore has the richer psychological insights. Some of the show’s more powerful moments deal with how Edward processes the mental shock of his experience. He loses appetite and is overwhelmed by having to attend school. Edward’s parents were home-schooling him and his brother, who had decided to go to public school right before the crash. Entering an environment of multiple voices, kids and lives provokes a short circuit in Edward that is a potent metaphor for re-entering the world after undergoing a personal cataclysm. He finds escape in grouchy next door neighbor Shay (Eva Ariel Binder), who with her strong attitude also gives him the kind of confidence and push we all need in our worst moments. For Colin O’Brien this is a fantastic showcase of his abilities and will surely lead to us seeing even more of him.
Approach “Dear Edward” in the right mood, because this is not the kind of series you should even attempt to binge during a particularly hellish week. Then again, it might also provide some catharsis. It really depends on the viewer’s sensibilities. This is well-done, expertly directed television on an acting and technical level. What it could have used more if is a bit of trimming. Less episodes and a leaner ensemble could have made it even more effective. Had it only focused on Edward, it would have indeed been an even more powerful, reflective story. Yet we don’t mind seeing good actors convey strong emotions and tap into what loss truly entails. Maybe this series is not a complete masterpiece, but its craft and aims are admirable.
“Dear Edward” begins streaming Feb. 3 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.