'Dear Edward' tugs — and tugs, and tugs — at your heartstrings
Here's my impression of any person telling me how much they loved any episode of This Is Us, the NBC family drama from producer and writer Dan Fogelman that enjoyed a very successful six-season run that ended in the spring of 2022: "I cried until my eyes were swollen shut and I was swimming in a pool of my own salty tears, then I watched it again, then I watched it while slowly contemplating a dying plant and it was even better; it is the best thing I have ever seen on television and I am devastated."
Don't get me wrong: This is not a criticism. It is extraordinarily impressive to get people to enjoy their own agony this much, and most people have some kind of art that does something similar for them. Books, music, movies, TV, games — doesn't matter. This is a weird thing art does that always seems weirder when it's somebody else's art than when it's yours.
The Ann Napolitano novel Dear Edward serves as the inspiration for the new Apple TV drama series of the same name, created by Jason Katims, the producer of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, which were also big successes for people who cry a lot. And while Katims didn't make This Is Us, it's the recent show by which Dear Edward feels the most inspired.
In the story, a 12-year-old boy named Edward (Colin O'Brien) is the sole survivor of a plane crash that kills, among many others, his entire family. He goes to live with his Aunt Lacey and Uncle John (Taylor Schilling and Carter Hudson), who have long struggled with infertility and find their lives very much disrupted by the fact that they suddenly have a 12-year-old. And not just any 12-year-old — Edward is understandably very deeply traumatized, lonely, disoriented and angry, even if it's in a quiet, interior kind of way. The only person he really relates to in his new home is an extroverted neighbor girl his age named Shay (Eva Ariel Binder). She practices roller derby in the street, and having lost his older brother, he fastens on her for company.
Meanwhile, Lacey is attending a support group for people who lost loved ones in the crash, and that's where the rest of the stories in this many-threaded ensemble show come in. Dee Dee (Connie Britton) is a wealthy woman who lost her husband, and she's now forced to both forge some kind of independence and confront some things she learns about him only now that he's gone. Adriana (Anna Uzele) lost her grandmother, who happened to be a beloved New York Congresswoman. She befriends Kojo (Idris Debrand), who lost his sister and has come from Ghana to care for his young niece, who will eventually return there with him. More characters will eventually emerge over the course of 10 episodes, but these are the most important ones in the early going.
There are a lot of good actors in this cast — nobody does this kind of work like Connie Britton — and to say Katims knows his stuff is an understatement. And his stuff is ... well, at least some of it is basically "you crying a lot." For a producer who loves big feelings, this is not a small move, it is a big move, in terms of sheer audacity — pick up this terribly sad book where a plane full of people die, leaving only one young boy behind, and then surround him with mourners with terrible, agonizing stories of their own. (The book, based on what I know of it, does not do this in the same way, although it does tell the stories of other people who die on the plane). It's a dark kind of vow from Katims to This Is Us viewers: If you liked that story where one family dealt with a ton of trauma and loss, you're going to love a story about a whole lot of families grieving at the same time, criss-crossing with each other, talking about loss constantly. You liked the kiddie pool of tears? Dive into the Olympic pool of tears!
There are interesting themes here that are not exclusively about loss: The title of the series (and book) comes from the fact that Edward, as the sole survivor of this tragedy, becomes a figure of great fascination. People write him letters — sometimes because they lost someone in the crash and they want to know whether he saw their loved one at any point, sometimes because they want to give him advice or convert him to their faith, sometimes because they just figure he must have some special knowledge from having this experience. Without spoiling too much, it seems clear that the intent is to explore these letter-writers more in a future season; this theme only begins to emerge in this first set of episodes. I sort of found myself wishing they got more into this part of Edward's struggle, that they stayed with a little narrower focus.
But ultimately, this isn't that show. This is a rip-your-guts-out show. It's a show where every moment, even if it's seemingly small, is conceptually big, big with feelings, big with meaning, big with a certain kind of coffee-shop indie music that is precisely calculated and entirely expected. It is a show that is, in a word, manipulative. In two words, perhaps proudly manipulative.
Because all art manipulates, if by that we only mean provoking a response and doing it intentionally. Breaking your heart, making you mad, keeping you on the edge of your seat, cracking you up — these are all manipulations of the artist, if that term is defined broadly enough. But what we tend to mean in common usage when we refer to sentimentality as manipulative is that it's too direct, a straight line rather than an interesting path we've never walked from provocation to response. We feel shoved along rather than shown the way to where we're meant to end up.
It's awfully hard not to feel shoved along by Dear Edward. It is swimming in death. Everybody is sad all the time. And when they are briefly not sad, even that is sad, or at least bittersweet, because what in the life of a person deep in grief is not, even at its sweetest, only bittersweet? Grief is worth examining, grief is worth recognizing, and yet at some level, I did feel like the labors of everyone involved were so ... well, labored that it was almost like distorted sound when speakers are overwhelmed. I felt driven to all the intended feelings so hard that they couldn't quite thrive. If there were any stories not suffused by grief, as there usually are in ensemble dramas that follow multiple threads at the same time, it might be easier to catch your breath and stay in the story.
This show is just so much.
And yet, even as I watched it and felt a bit put off by it, I never doubted that it will have an audience. Sometimes people need to cry, then cry again. They need to at least cry at something they can put away afterwards because it isn't their reality. Tear-jerkers — and that has perhaps never been a more apt description — jerk tears from people who are prepared to have their tears jerked, just like a horror movie is there to startle people who showed up to be startled. I'm not sure Dear Edward is the most nuanced or the most interesting show, but that same directness that can seem like manipulation can also be simple truth in advertising. If you loved crying at This Is Us or Parenthood, you will probably also enjoy crying at Dear Edward. A lot! And that's fine. Nothing wrong with a few tears, as long as you know what you're getting into.