“Dear” is a schmaltzy but earnest love letter to kindness

Dear Spike Lee in Apple TV+'s "Dear...".

Celebrities read letters from people whose lives they’ve touched in Apple TV+’s treacly new series.

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To quote Susan Sarandon in Cloud Atlas, “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” The new Apple TV+ show Dear… embodies this idea, as it explores how an assortment of celebrities have had a positive impact on everyday people. The achievements of these iconic individuals are no longer their own. They are now intertwined with so many people they’ll never even know.

Produced by R.J. Cutler, each of the ten episodes of Dear… focuses on a single celebrity — Spike Lee, Jane Goodall, Yara Shahidi, the list goes on — who discusses their upbringing and what inspired them to pursue their career. Then, they talk about pivotal moments in their careers and what those moments meant to them. Lin-Manuel Miranda, for example, highlights his work on In the Heights and Hamilton and why those shows are so important to him.

Also present each episode are four letters from fans of that episode’s celebrity. The fans get to read their letters aloud, while surrounded by filmed recreations of crucial moments in their lives. A little girl who went through cancer treatment, for instance, reads her letter to Miranda while walking around a hospital ward. Another segment sees an adult reading aloud a letter to Big Bird while moving out of his abusive home and finding a more supportive family.

Dear
Big Bird on Apple TV+’s “Dear…”.

These portions of Dear… tend to have the most poignant moments of the entire series. After all, letter-writers laying bare their struggles is already a moving sight. So is hearing how the accomplishments of people like Lee inspired their actions. But the show would have been better off with a more restrained presentation of these letters. 

The filmed recreations accompanying the letter readings are more distracting than affecting thanks to a number of over-the-top dramatic details. A socially isolated person thrusting the hood of a jacket over their head. Intrusive slow-motion shots. A conflicted person literally walking into a crossroads. Such details tend to reinforce aspects of the letter that were already clear. We don’t need intrusive slow-motion shots to convey a person’s sadness; their letter already took care of that. Dear… needed to trust that its central subjects could carry the emotional weight of the show rather than lean on such tired dramatic devices.

Also hurting the show is Dear…’s repetitive structure. Each episode follows the same formula, right down to identical music cues to indicate despair and triumph. This robs individual installments the chance to be as unique as their subjects. Stevie Wonder and Misty Copeland are such vastly unique people with massively different artistic pursuits. Why are their episodes lit, filmed, and paced in the exact same manner? Dear… covers a lot of trailblazing icons who challenged the status quo. Unfortunately, the show itself suffers from a sense of stagnation.

Dear… needed to trust that its central subjects could carry the emotional weight of the show rather than lean on such tired dramatic devices.

That being said, there are plenty of parts of Dear that do work, and quite well at that. Take Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s episode, for example, which turns out to be a thought-provoking exploration of Raisman’s story as a survivor of sexual assault by Olympics doctor Larry Nassar. Her accounts of grappling with her assault and the process of testifying against her abuser are harrowing. 

Similarly powerful are letters from other sexual assault survivors that Raisman has lent hope to. This entire episode lends real insight into the psyche of a sexual assault survivor. This is the darkest episode of Dear…, but the perceptive take on this material makes it one of the better episodes of the season.

Meanwhile, an unexpected treat of the season is an episode focusing on Sesame Street character Big Bird. This is the lone Dear… episode centered on a fictitious character. The idea of profiling Big Bird in a show dedicated to figures like Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey sounds like an awkward proposition. A few minutes into the episode, though, it becomes clear why Big Bird received an episode: the yellow bird’s actions have had a positive impact on people. 

Big Bird coping with the death of Mr. Hooper or the loss of his nest after a hurricane have managed to help real people overcome their own tragedies. He may be a big feathery yellow puppet, but even the life of Big Bird is not his own. Even residents of Sesame Street can influence others, and that’s a touching concept.

Dear… is frequently hamstrung by clumsy visual accompaniments and a rigid structure. But like the very best hand-written letters, Dear… works best when it’s being deeply human and even more personal.

All ten episodes of Dear… are currently streaming on Apple TV+.

Dear… Trailer:

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