A plane goes down in a field killing everyone on board. Or everyone except one little boy – soon nicknamed “miracle boy” by the press – who, having lost his parents and brother in the crash, will now be raised by an aunt. In an instant, hundreds of lives are over and thousands more are changed forever. How can loss on that scale be fathomed?
In 2020, the writer Ann Napolitano made an attempt. She turned her grim fascination with the real-life 2010 tragedy of Flight 771 into a novel called Dear Edward. In her fictionalised version, the disaster takes place on a flight from New York to Los Angeles and the nine-year-old Dutch survivor becomes a 12-year-old American boy. The novel was well received, praised for its sensitive study of sorrow and healing, and has now been adapted into a 10-episode ensemble drama by Jason Katims, best known as the Emmy-winning showrunner of high-school football series Friday Night Lights.
At the centre of the ensemble is Edward, a curly-haired, sickly-looking piano prodigy (Colin O’Brien) who is traumatised first by the crash (unsparingly played out in the first episode) and then by a deluge of attention from strangers who unburden themselves both in writing – the “Dear Edward” letters of the title – and in person. They tell him he’s lucky to be alive. He feels anything but.
That’s far too much to put on any one person, least of all a child. Fortunately, the drama is evenly shared between the eight core members of a bereavement support group. Some of them you can’t help but care for, including two played by already established, always engaging TV stars, Connie Britton (Nashville, American Horror Story, Friday Night Lights) and Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black). Britton is Dee Dee, an upfront, often tipsy, emotionally raw housewife, while Schilling is Edward’s aunt turned adoptive mum Lacey, a woman whose marriage and mental health were already on the brink before this huge new responsibility landed in her lap. Crucially, both actors invest their characters with some much-needed animation and individuality, modulating the programme’s otherwise monotonous tone of grief, grief and yet more unimaginable grief.
There are other winning performances. British actor Idris DeBrand charms as Uncle Kojo, the self-described “Portaloo prince of Ghana”. But there are many underwritten and uninvolving other characters whose scenes will have you counting the minutes till you can be back in Dee Dee’s New Jersey mansion, drinking wine and talking trash about her dead husband.
Perhaps these generic grievers would be more memorable if they looked more distinctive? Dear Edward is dutifully diverse in racial terms but has been cast from the same pool of uniformly slim, symmetrical people as most US network television, with the effect of undermining its otherwise sincere efforts to depict the reality of life’s struggles. Any of these dreamboats could walk into a modelling contract at a moment’s notice.
It’s also a shame that some tantalising loose story threads are left hanging. Like what’s the deal with pregnant Linda’s (Amy Forsyth) interfering LA in-laws who receive the astounding news about their dead son, then are never heard from again? Or what about that oxy-addicted paramedic (played by Mare of Easttown’s Joe Tippett) who responds to the crash site while still high? How did his story pan out? Maybe it’s the nature of an ensemble drama to flit from person to person with nary a backward glance, but in the case of Dear Edward’s already broken-hearted characters, it feels like a particularly callous series of abandonments.
It’s not that TV drama must always uplift, or find triumph in tragedy. Some of the best is determinedly dour, with only the blackest humour for relief (see Sally Wainwright’s not-so-Happy Valley). But in contrast to the easy catharsis of a 90-minute movie tearjerker, downer television does need to earn our tears. Dear Edward achieves the necessary moments of authentic emotion with some regularity (usually courtesy of Connie Britton), but each and every one is ruined when a folk-pop needle-drop comes mewling in like the uninvited guest at a funeral.
We have plenty of examples of how well-chosen music can further elevate quality television (I’m still humming the White Lotus theme), and now here’s a reminder that the opposite is also true. If it lost the genuinely obnoxious soundtrack, Dear Edward would be at least 25% improved.
• Dear Edward is on Apple TV+