Thanks to nearly 100 episodes of “Nashville” and five seasons of “Friday Night Lights,” Connie Britton is often associated with the South. Few fans of ABC’s country-music drama will forget her crooning duet, “No One Will Ever Love You,” and fewer still will forget the fierce yet loving twang Tami Taylor put on every piece of advice she gave all those Texan school kids (not to mention her stubborn, football-coaching husband). When she was growing up, Britton did live in Virginia, which she’s said makes it easy for her to slip into the accent whenever she hears it. But she was born in Boston, Mass., lived in Maryland before moving one state down, and traveled back north when she went to Dartmouth College.
This truncated biographical travelogue is simply meant to prepare you, dear readers, for Britton’s work in “Dear Edward,” an Apple TV+ ensemble drama from “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” showrunner Jason Katims. Britton is only one in an expansive, diverse cast, and her role is far from the most integral to the core story — which follows the recovering family and friends of those lost in a commercial plane crash, as well as its lone survivor, Edward (Colin O’Brien). Based on Ann Napolitano’s novel of the same name, “Dear Edward” stretches itself too thin. There are too many characters, as illustrated by redundant storylines (two separate people sleep with their dead brothers’ love interest), unresolved plot points (why do we need to know the first rescue worker to the crash site is also a crack addict?), and a mixed bag of compelling arcs.
Britton, though, earns her time. As Dee Dee, a wealthy wife and mother whose husband dies on the doomed flight and leaves her to sort a mountain of surprise paperwork, the actor navigates grief’s choppy waters with clear eyes and a full heart. (Sorry, really, but it’s an accurate description!) She’s alternately scared and angry, broken and driven, lost and singularly focused, as she embarks on a clichéd investigation into who her husband really was. Her emotional journey is aptly messy, yet Britton’s embodiment of those sudden waves of pain and relief makes sense from moment to moment (which is also true for Edward and only a few other characters). Better still, her performance is loads of fun in a series seriously wanting for more.
“Dear Edward” devotes its entire premiere to a literal funeral march, as passengers head to the airport and board the fateful aircraft, while loved ones say the kind of goodbyes you know, as the viewer, they’ll regret or cherish. Gary (Johnny Link) and Linda (Amy Forsyth) share a tender smooth in the security line, before he goes ahead and she stays behind, scheduled for a later flight. Adriana (Anna Uzele) tries to quit her job as a congressional aide, while dropping her boss — and grandmother — off at LaGuardia. An unnamed man in distress is briefly heard calling after his fiancé, Amanda (Brittney S. Hall) and only shown again ordering a Jack & Coke onboard.
Fleeting, seemingly insignificant moments like this one inform minor mysteries that are solved during ensuing episodes, as the mourners gather for group therapy sessions and share their stories. While it’s smart of Katims and his writing staff not to overload the audience with introductions — by saving select introductions for later on — the open questions aren’t always well-teased and a lingering imbalance persists for those tied to the answers. (Amanda and her would-be brother-in-law Steve, played by Ivan Shaw, feel like they’re off in their own show, despite the writers’ strained efforts to tie them in.)
But let’s not overlook the titular character. Edward is already despondent the day he heads to the airport. His mother (Robin Tunney) got a job in L.A., forcing the family to leave their first and only home in New York. Not only that, but Eddie’s brother Jordan (Maxwell Jenkins) has decided to go to public school, instead of continuing being home schooled with his “savant” sibling. Toss on a dad who’s nice but a bit overbearing as a teacher (he gives them homework to do on the plane), and Edward is already feeling isolated, scared, and unsure of himself.
Colin O’Brien in “Dear Edward”
Courtesy of Apple TV+
After the crash, Edward goes to live with his Aunt Lacey (Taylor Schilling) and Uncle John (Carter Hudson) in New Jersey. He makes a friend in his bossy next-door neighbor, Shay (Eva Ariel Binder), but that’s about the only upside. Edward struggles with everything from keeping an appetite to learning in his first classroom environment. To the show’s credit (and, presumably, the book’s), Edward’s development feels realistic. Much of what he’s going through takes place in his head, and exposition is limited enough that he never feels like a TV kid designed in a lab to evoke sympathy. O’Brien is strong, too, in scenes when he’s asked to express an array of feelings without many words and that Edward himself likely doesn’t really understand.
Still, 10 hours is a long time to spend in such a tortured mindset, and that’s what makes Britton’s turn so vital. My favorite detail — among a buffet of worthy indulgences, from how officiously she navigates social interactions to the way she she moodily sings along with Bruce Springsteen — is that Dee Dee’s accent shifts depending on the situation. When times are good and she’s living large, there’s a WASP-y entitlement to her vivacious life of shopping, dining, and drinking. (Britton continues her rich onscreen tradition of near-constant boozing.) Her explicit intonation is always a touch louder, faster, and haughtier than it needs to be — to the point that if this was the character throughout “Dear Edward,” she would’ve been unbearable by Episode 2. But when Dee Dee’s fortunes take a turn and she has to fight her way out of a corner, Britton drops her vowels. Her enunciation sounds like something between a Long Island fisherman and Boston bar hand. The series gives little explanation for the choice, but it’s enough: Dee Dee wasn’t born rich, she just grew accustomed to the lifestyle. So as she feels her lavish customs slipping into the rearview mirror, Dee Dee’s adopted mannerisms do, too.
Both a big swing and an attentive choice, Dee Dee’s accent boosts “Dear Edward’s” entertainment value without distracting from its tear-jerking intentions. While Katims’ best shows (“Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood”) lean harder into inspiration than tragedy, this one is a bit over-committed to sorting its characters’ grief. When that loss merits the given time — as Edward and Dee Dee’s does — witnessing so much emotional disentangling can be engaging, even rewarding.
But too many characters jump too quickly past tragedy — like Kojo, played by Idris Debrand, who loses his sister on the flight, but blows past that death while falling in love with another lead character (who, conveniently, also ignores her own pain while prioritizing career aspirations). Still others get lost in a sea of senseless sorrow. Lacey and John, in particular, needed considerable refinement. They’ve suffered multiple miscarriages, their marriage is in trouble, plus, oh yeah, her sister’s family died. Instead of properly addressing each (or, god forbid, scaling back to begin with), all that turmoil congeals into an inaccessible sack of sadness. (Side note: So many Apple shows seem to match the tech company’s sleek gray aesthetic, but this one muddies its grayscale into an aptly unkempt version of the look. It’s not pretty, or all that pleasing to live with, but hoo boy is an accurate depiction of Bummerville, USA.)
If you’re in need of a good cry, “Dear Edward’s” overcast vision of life will likely do the trick. But even with Britton leading the charge, I’m not sure her latest was meant for more than five episodes, let alone the 10 it got.
“Dear Edward” premieres Friday, February 3 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.
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