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Review: 'Dear...' is A Bundle of Love Letters to An Eclectic Mix of Celebrities

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jun 1, 2020
'Dear...'  (Source:Apple TV+)

The original Apple TV+ series "Dear..." takes the form of extended interviews with various innovators in a variety of fields, from Spike Lee to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Oprah Winfrey, ballet dancer Misty Copeland, influential primatologist Jane Goodall, and even Sesame Street stalwart Big Bird.

The series aims to uplift and inspire, and much of the emotional energy comes from the letters that are read aloud by people — movers and shakers in their own rights — who have been inspired by the lives and work of the series' subjects.

Each episode is a mix of docudrama and feature profile. While the subject of each episode discusses their origins and the trajectory their lives have taken, the authors of the letters addressed to them are shown re-enacting passages of their own lives, strolling through scenes they are describing even as they read aloud from their letters. Thus, a university president strides across a college campus as he tells Spike Lee how the film "School Daze" opened his eyes to the very fact that historically Black institutions of higher learning exist, a revelation that set him on his career path. In another episode, a single mother writing to Gloria Steinem writes about how she was feeling "hemmed in" by a marriage in which it was assumed that she would stay home and tend house and children; she got a divorce, put herself through medical school, and became a doctor, all while raising her children on her own.

Elsewhere in the series, a young gymnast writes to Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman to describe being sick with leukemia and losing a leg — and getting right back to work to figure out how to perform gymnastics with a prosthetic. In an episode centered on teenage "Black-ish" actress Yara Shahidi, who is also active in education rights, an 8-year-old talks about her own budding career and a formerly homeless high school student in Denver, Colorado, describes running the local school board in order to help combat the unacceptably high rate of homelessness among high schoolers in his district.

But the stories and insights shared by the recipients of the letters are just as inspiring as the fan letters these celebrities receive. Stevie Wonder talks about how he began writing songs that address racial justice; Oprah Winfrey recalls going to an all-white county in Texas early in her talk show career to hear the local residents explain and justify their need to live among only fellow Caucasians. Notes Winfrey: "In most instances, you want to meet people exactly where they are, but when you are speaking to people espousing their own vitriol, you've got to rise above it. You're not trying to align with them; you're trying to transcend them."

There's a lot of talk about "purpose" in these ten episodes, but there are plenty of more specific ruminations, as well. Lin-Manuel Miranda recalls how critics didn't understand why "In the Heights," his musical about a Latinx New York neighborhood, didn't feature knife-fighting gang members, a la "West Side Story." Oprah recalls the reason she made the decisions, unpopular with some in the television industry, not to do "salacious, confrontational shows" — a choice that left some trying to negotiate for "sleazy Fridays" to plump up ratings.

The ten celebrities at the center of each of these ten episodes have dared to go against the grain, and in doing so found their individual pathways to success. Those who have written to thank them for their examples have, in their turn, gone against the grain, as well. "Dear..." reminds us of what it means to follow one's own passion and purpose — and why it's necessary to do so.

"Dear..." is streaming now at Apple TV+

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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