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Jason Katims’ adaptation of Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward isn’t a wink-and-nudge kind of show, but in a late-season episode, a pair of characters are doing what amounts to a debriefing on the drama’s myriad plotlines and one of them realizes that two of the ongoing stories have been very, very similar.
“Oh, well that … echoes,” says the character who spent the season less involved in the various main arcs.
Cast: Connie Britton, Taylor Schilling, Colin O'Brien, Amy Forsyth, Carter Hudson, Anna Uzele, Idris DeBrand, Ivan Saw, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Eva Ariel Binder, Brittany S. Hall
Creator: Jason Katims, from the novel by Ann Napolitano
It’s hard to tell if the partially tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment represents self-awareness on the part of Katims and company that Dear Edward relies heavily on narrative repetition, or if he genuinely wasn’t sure that viewers would be clever enough to make the very obvious connections on their own. Either way, it isn’t exactly accurate. If you go to the Grand Canyon and you shout something and somebody 10 feet away from you shouts the same thing back at you, a person with their eyes closed might conceivably think they were hearing an echo, but anybody paying attention would recognize it was actually just two people yelling at each other.
The first season of Dear Edward feels like 10 hours of 10 (or more) people crying at each other nonstop. There’s no room for anything to echo because the cacophony of misery is so loud and so pervasive. Dear Edward is made with enough craft and driven by enough solid performances that it doesn’t usually feel like straight-up misery porn, which hasn’t always been the case with TV’s recent attempts to tap into the vein of free-flowing salt water that This Is Us set flowing. But in this case the sheer volume leaves no room for delicacy or variation. Instead of experiencing catharsis as the season ended, I mostly felt a mixture of relief and then wariness at how shamelessly the series seemed to be pushing forward into a second season.
Hopping around in time with a disorienting aggressiveness, the pilot for Dear Edward introduces a bunch of characters who will be connected by a tragic plane crash. The lone survivor is 12-year-old Edward (Colin O’Brien), who already suffered from social anxiety before he lost his parents (Brian d’Arcy James and Robin Tunney) and brother (Maxwell Jenkins) and now has to bear the weight of being The Miracle Boy.
As he recovers from his physical and psychological wounds, Edward moves in with his aunt and uncle (Taylor Schilling and Carter Hudson) in the New York City suburbs. Aunt Lacey is grieving for her sister and still coping with the trauma of multiple miscarriages, so this form of sudden motherhood weighs heavily on her.
The airline behind the crash commits to three months of group therapy for those who were affected by the disaster, and that brings together many of our characters, too many to properly describe in a contained synopsis. There’s Dee Dee (Connie Britton), a larger-than-life socialite whose late husband was apparently living a double life. There’s Adriana (Anna Uzele), granddaughter of a local congresswoman, forced by Grandma’s death into an unexpected political race. There’s Linda (Amy Forsyth), four months pregnant and grieving the loss of her boyfriend. Kojo (Idris DeBrand) has to come over from Ghana to take care of a young niece (Khloe Bruno) shaken by the loss of her mother. Etc.
Everybody is trying to move forward, but everybody is being held back by tragedy, and everybody is harboring various secrets, most of which are weirdly predictable, as if to suggest that a dozen half-developed subplots might equal one fully developed and possibly even surprising plot. Is a misery-mystery hybrid just a mis-tery?
As if to emphasize that the potential number of storylines in this extended grief-o-verse is unlimited, Dear Edward is instantly overextended, and that’s before a few major characters, including Brittany S. Hall’s Amanda, Dario Ladani Sanchez’s Sam and Ivan Shaw’s Steve, emerge partway into the season. The support group is an opportunity for characters to expositionalize and emote about their survivor’s remorse, but it’s just as much an opportunity to introduce new people and pair characters off in different permutations.
Soon, the various survivors are living together, sleeping together and offering financial services together, with a lack of boundaries that’s weirdly similar to Apple TV+’s recently debuted comedy Shrinking. Oh, and like Shrinking, Dear Edward is practically wall-to-wall sentimental-rock needle drops, bordering on the series becoming a musical at a certain point. I was already calling the show “Dear Edward Hansen” before I noticed that the Dear Evan Hansen guys co-wrote the show’s opening theme, which is at least 60 percent Lizzy McAlpine singing “hold on.” It’s very Dear Evan Hansen.
But if you put this many characters together in the same place with this many storylines and they all revolve around grief, along with some hollow mysteries, even if the setup is not wholly unrealistic and definitely isn’t unrelatable — grief, especially in a collective situation, is an all-consuming vortex — there’s a risk that the narrative can become somewhat mechanical. It often does here. Two “secret gay” twists? Sure, that “echoes.” A thread that involves a broken piano? What a coincidence that a member of the support group repairs pianos for a living. A party needs hors d’oeuvres? How nice that somebody just found a hidden recipe for dumplings!
It becomes about fitting pieces together and gives the impression of solving a puzzle, not creating a world. Edward’s new home is next door to a quirky girl (Eva Ariel Binder’s Shay) who spends all her time practicing for roller-derby tryouts. And while I’m certain that some viewers will find that roller-derby plot random and unconnected — those people won’t have noticed that the entire show is all about the violent, unpadded collisions that characterize human interactions — I enjoyed it because it was the only storyline in the entire show that gave the impression of continuing on when the cameras aren’t running. Connie Britton’s Dee Dee has a daughter, for example, and long stretches go by in which nobody even acknowledges that this daughter exists. She just goes into mothballs when she isn’t on camera. The show’s world is simultaneously sprawling and weirdly hermetically sealed.
Mostly, though, the performances kept me interested.
O’Brien is thoroughly committed to Edward’s grief as a deeply physical thing; the character is withdrawn to the point of being coiled, making his bursts or even glimpses of emotion radiate. Also working remarkably well in a quiet register is Forsyth, who needs almost no dialogue at all to make Linda sad and sympathetic. Britton is almost the opposite, with a performance of big beats, some weirdly and perhaps discordantly comic, though always watchable. There’s a broadness to Britton and a brittleness to Schilling’s turn, qualities that put both of them on the edge of overacting, though I think I found the latter to be more consistently effective. I liked Hall and Hudson, though they both fit into the “characters go into cold storage whenever they’re not around” problem. And I liked the relationship between Uzele’s and DeBrand’s characters, even if Kojo is more the idea of a character than a real person.
Did I get teary watching Dear Edward? Absolutely. It’s almost impossible to avoid. Katims is a master. But were Parenthood and Friday Night Lights shows about making viewers cry, or were they great shows that often reveled in using their tapestry of human experiences to evoke tears? I’d surely argue the latter. Dear Edward is much closer to the former, not an example of a great artist wasting his talents, but maybe an example of a great artist not using all the colors on his easel.
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