“Dear Edward” is the sort of show that makes you understand why the great middle — the set of works that don’t feature aliens or superheroes, and that are intended for grown-up audiences — has fallen out of the theatrical moviegoing business. That’s because in any era other than this one, this smart but unshapely literary adaptation, full of good intentions and interesting characters but bloated beyond recognition at 10 hours, would have been a comparatively lithe movie.
Taken in the form Apple TV+ has provided us via show creator Jason Katims, though, “Dear Edward” is a bit of a mess — a jumble of semi-intersecting characters whom we meet for long enough to learn more detail about their lives than is strictly necessary, but who blink out of focus when it comes to holding our sympathy. Based on Ann Napolitano’s bestseller, “Dear Edward” has a novelist’s ambition but not the requisite gift for structure. As such, it becomes a punishing sit, with promised catharsis lying perpetually out of reach.
Here, Edward is played by newcomer Colin O’Brien; traveling with his parents and brother, he ends up the sole survivor of a plane crash. We follow him through the days after the crash, as he moves in with his aunt (Taylor Schilling of “Orange Is the New Black”), struggles to sleep and struggles in his waking hours, and begins to piece together what he ought to make of the rest of his life. The show’s title is drawn from the expectations that society has of Edward — Schilling’s character, Lacey, is constantly receiving letters addressed to her nephew, ones that she hides, worrying that the weight of the world’s hopes for him and curiosity about him will crush what’s left of his spirit.
Lacey’s storyline is nicely drawn, with Schilling getting the opportunity to show real range: She is simultaneously grieving her sister, adjusting to a new and unsteady arrival in her home, and pondering whether this might, after years of fertility struggles, be the version of parenthood she gets to experience. But other corners of the show feel less successful and not entirely germane. It grows hard to understand what various other loved ones of crash victims have to do with the story — or, really, what the story is.
To wit: Anna Uzele is sharp and elegant as a young woman running for Congress to fill the seat of her late grandmother, this while juggling two potential love interests. But this thread comes to feel increasingly remote from the story “Dear Edward” is elsewhere trying to tell — not just because Edward isn’t a part of it, but because viewers had reason to believe that this was a show about piecing things together in the aftermath of tragedy. It’s not that tonal variation isn’t welcome — even “This Is Us” gave viewers a break now and then, for a show that’s solely about grief would be unremitting — but as this storyline spins forward, its connection to the incidents we’ve been following comes to feel tenuous, then absent. (That Uzele, as a performer, seems to better understand what goes into running for Congress than do the show’s writers surely contributes to the sense that this is filler time.)
Other of the storylines more directly address characters’ sorrow but fail to hold attention for different reasons, including, perhaps, that there simply isn’t much of an organizing idea to the show. Without the connective tissue that makes us understand what these characters mean to one another aside from shared experience through coincidence, it feels uneasily random. Anytime it leaves Edward’s side, it doesn’t give us much justification beyond the fact that it’s time to move.
The only performer who seems to be having much fun is Connie Britton, who devours scenery as Dee Dee, the widow of a crash victim who is, in bereavement, discovering things she never knew about the nature of her marriage. Outfitted in a big tri-state accent and even bigger hair, Britton, a collaborator of Katims’ on “Friday Night Lights,” is as close as this series gets to an outright good time — a welcome dose of levity, given the indignities her character is suffering. And in Britton’s corner of the series, at least, other characters do intersect in a grief support group. But Dee Dee’s grasping nature, seeking to prolong the conversation and to know her fellow sufferers better, feels less like a character beat than a neglected warning for the show itself. The connections around Dee Dee flicker away before much can be drawn from them.
If the characters are to be this siloed, other structures suggest themselves — why not an anthology series, in which each week brings us a little story of hurt and healing? Instead, undifferentiated emotion runs together, anchored by a boy who’s more symbol than person. O’Brien is assigned a task that would challenge any actor, and clears the bar, although certain elements of Edward’s wise-child persona rankled even so. (Late in the series, my ear twitched at hearing this preteen describe himself as having lived through a “fugue state.”) This fairly undisciplined television show stretches Edward’s story to its limit, but O’Brien renders well the character’s humanity, his confusion, his guilt and desire for a moment’s break from pain. All of this is recognizable and real. It’s not that the rest of “Dear Edward” isn’t, exactly, but the endless juxtaposition dulls the impact of any one character beat. It all just comes to feel like so much confusing and overly complicated incident — a shame, given how strong and evocative are the story’s fundamentals. One might, in another era, have even called them cinematic.
“Dear Edward” will premiere the first three episodes of its first season on Friday, February 3, on Apple TV+, with new episodes to follow weekly.