Big Bird changed Sarika Bansal’s life. And yes, I am talking about the fluffy yellow creature who lives on “Sesame Street.” With little context, it seems outlandish that someone like Bansal, a New York Times published journalist who also founded BRIGHT Magazine, could have her life transformed by a character on a children’s television show. Though, if you read the letter she wrote to Big Bird on Apple TV+’s new documentary series, “Dear…,” a story that sounds so seemingly absurd at first shifts to something heartwarming. In fact, you probably won’t have to look too hard to find a similar narrative present in your own life.
Composed of 10 half-hour episodes, “Dear…,” released on June 5, shines a light on celebrities who have changed the world and the people who have, because of them, been inspired to make differences in their own lives and communities.
Each episode interviews a different well-known figure about their life story and the obstacles they overcame on their journey toward greatness. “Dear…” doesn’t just focus on the biography of celebrities, though. The series also entails everyday people reading letters to the celebrities who inspired them to reach their own level of success.
Although, the word “celebrity” doesn’t do the well-known faces featured in “Dear…” quite the justice they deserve. From Aly Raisman and Oprah Winfrey, to yes, even Big Bird, the show features some of the prominent trailblazers of the 20th and 21st centuries; individuals who have encountered various setbacks in becoming modern-day icons are now considered heroes to many people all over the world.
In Bansal’s letter to Big Bird, she explains how “Sesame Street” helped her learn English as a child while growing up in a household with parents who mostly spoke Hindi. Big Bird and other characters on the show, she said, taught her what it means to be kind as well as the importance of hearing everyone’s story — two things that inspired her to pursue journalism later on in life.
Throughout its entirety, “Dear…” showcases the voices of about 40 other people, young and old, who read letters they have written to their heroes about the ways in which they have been inspired to spread good in the world.
Isabel and Melati, two teenage sisters from Bali, Indonesia, write to primatologist and activist Jane Goodall explaining how her dedication to preserving wildlife inspired them to start to cleaning up plastic left on beaches. This movement has gone on to encourage over 45,000 people to do the same and cause more than 400 Bali-based businesses to go plastic-free.
Mary Kay explains how watching Winfrey discuss sexual abuse on her talk show helped her reconcile the abuse she experienced as a child. Now Mary Kay travels to women’s groups all over the country to share her story and help others do the same.
The stories in “Dear…” are often quite emotional, dealing with themes of struggle and perseverance. Usually, I don’t cry while watching TV, but I found it difficult not to tear up, even just a little, during moments similar to those in Episode 8 when “Dear…” shows a clip of Aly Raisman sticking a clean landing during her floor routine at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Raisman, a gymnastics veteran unsure if she would even qualify for the 2016 Olympics, cries while waving at a cheering crowd. She won the silver medal. “I worked really hard to get to that moment,” Raisman said. “It made me feel absolutely amazing, especially knowing that you are impacting generations to come.” Later on in the episode we find out Raisman did in fact impact others down the line, as her perseverance to compete inspired a gymnast to continue with the sport after losing one of her legs to cancer.
Whether by inciting mere realizations that take place in the microcosm of one person’s life or by igniting metamorphic movements that impact entire countries, “Dear…” illuminates just how vast one person’s legacy can be.
In Episode 2, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a writer and actor known for creating “Hamilton,” responds to the musical’s explosion in pop culture as well as art’s overall impact on the world around us. “Every time you make something you are throwing rocks in a pond,” Miranda said. “You have no idea of the ripples that are going to come back to you.”
Throwing rocks into Earth’s pond, lighting a match in a dark universe — it doesn’t matter what metaphor you choose to describe it, the ultimate premise of “Dear…” is the same: We all thread our own legacy, stitch by stitch, action by action, hoping to create a trail meaningful to someone, even if only to one other person. For those who don’t latch onto this message, the show may seem less endearing.
In an article he wrote for Apple Insider, journalist Stephen Silver called “Dear…” a “surprisingly shallow documentary series. It’s as though the producers and Apple pitched the subjects by telling them ‘we’re going to make a documentary about you, in which we talk about how great you are, and then have you read letters from people who also tell you how great you are,’” Silver wrote.
Yes, for those who strictly see “Dear…” as a biographical documentary series that offers praise to already esteemed people via handcrafted messages of thanks and positivity, the show’s overall premise may seem like the pointless ego-boosting of wealthy celebrities, as if making millions wasn’t already enough. But those who really listen to what the 10 heroes featured on the show have to say take away a different message, one more about their own ability to impact the very same world.
According to Goodall, legacies don’t just pertain to the names that commonly slip off the tongue. “Every individual makes a difference every day,” Goodall said. “We have a choice as to what kind of difference we’re going to make.”
Good or bad, big or small, everyone’s actions leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs, impacting the life of someone else. These actions gain momentum, says writer and women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, when combined with those of others. “It is perfectly clear to me that only movements change the world,” Steinem said. “One person does not do that. It’s a contagion.” “Dear…” isn’t about Gloria Steinem. Or Jane Goodall. Or Oprah Winfrey. It’s about the rest of us.
When watching “Dear…,” I can’t help but — perhaps selfishly — think about my own legacy, the things I did yesterday and the actions I will take today that will leave a meaningful impression on the people and world around me. Though, I find the idea of creating lasting change unnerving, often slipping into the belief that I, one person, am too insignificant to create something worthwhile. “Dear…” serves as a reminder that we all have the potential to form greatness in our own way.
At least, Goodall believes so.
“I do have hope for the future, because each one of us carries seeds of change,” Goodall said. “This can lead to one person so strong that he or she can influence the lives of billions of others and change the course of history forever.” You and I and 7.8 billion people — the seeds rooted deeply in this Earth. “Dear…” makes me imagine the legacy we will grow today and every day after.