tv review

Dear White People Leans Into Its Difficulties in a Compellingly Messy Third Season

Photo: Lara Solanki/Netflix

Season three of Dear White People seems to have gone through a version of the pained, awkward soul-searching that often afflicts students during their third year of university or high school. You know what you have been, but you aren’t entirely sure what you’re becoming, which means there’s no good answer when someone asks you where you’re going next, much less what you think you might do when this phase of your life has concluded. Series creator Justin Simien and his fellow writers and filmmakers have ramped up this college-based comedy-drama’s already insistent self-reflexive qualities, to the point where whole scenes and sequences appear to be dissecting themselves on an operating table and peering at their own rhetorical and dramatic innards.

Of course, when you do that, the patient tends to bleed out and die, and that absolutely happens here. Some scenes collapse under the weight of the philosophical questions they take on, without checking the load-bearing weight of the characters and the story line, and you can practically hear knees buckling as the minutes and seconds tick upward. Other scenes, meanwhile, appear to be intended as light comic or romantic relief from the heavier stuff, but may ironically alienate viewers who are mainly interested in watching the series live in a place where most other series rarely even think of traveling. There are multiple lines about the lameness of a season-three Netflix show trying to reinvent itself, and scenes of the characters watching and critiquing fictional series and movies that satirize actual ones, including a parody of The Handmaid’s Tale that allows for potshots at Elisabeth Moss, Scientology, and white feminism.

There’s also a curious reluctance to really engage with the bombshell revelation that ended season two: that Giancarlo Esposito’s narrator was a real person and was emboldened to enter the drama and stand there onstage with everyone else (like the Stage Manager in Our Town or Bob Balaban’s narrator in Moonrise Kingdom) and tease out more details about the secret society known as the Order of X. Is this a case of a series writing itself into a corner and needing to take its time figuring how to get out?

Perhaps. But considering how the construction of narrative itself is foregrounded throughout season three of Dear White People — not just stories of individual people but of societies, races, cultures, genders, and sexual orientations, all in conflict or collaboration with each other — this feels like a case of a show leaning into its difficulties and trying to make art from them. Samantha White (Logan Browning) has handed over her eponymous radio series to Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), who initially seems to be trying to create a lighter version of a program that was such a flashpoint for controversy; but soon enough, she engages with issues and agitates to get Sam back on the air. A handsome and eloquent software designer with the blatantly symbolic name Moses Brown (played by Blair Underwood) returns to Winchester after leaving long ago to work for Google. He tries to mentor the campus rebel Reggie (Marque Richardson) and stirs up excitement with talk of an app that will connect troubled African-Americans with human relationships and mental-health resources to “create an environment where a traumatized mind can heal.” Mixed into Brown’s scenes are provocative discussions of how computer programs, algorithms, even data itself can be racially biased — a point that might make you look at the Netflix display screen (or the search bar on any website) with a raised eyebrow.

Representation and the lack thereof are regular topics here, even more so than in previous seasons. It’s rare to see a series with such a strongly developed political consciousness declining to dehumanize anyone who stands in opposition to characters marked as sympathetic — except, of course, for obvious racists, milquetoast moderates, self-important ninnies, and blatantly destructive mediocrities, like the white Winchester Pastiche editor who rewrites an already inflammatory piece on affirmative action by Brandon P. Bell’s Troy Fairbanks to make him sound like a reactionary Uncle Tom. For the most part, the conversations are more thoughtful and expansive than the series is often given credit for being. They’re definitely didactic (in that they run at the gist of things head-on), but they’re also multilayered and complex, at times genuinely dialectical in how they permit competing views to coexist without canceling each other out.

And they allow the characters’ inconsistencies and contradictions to complicate whatever message they’re trying to put out. Notice, for instance, how Moses’s utopian earnestness is undercut by the bitter defensiveness of a success story who’s been repeatedly accused by others of selling out: “Black people who aren’t doing anything are writing think-pieces about black people who are,” he says. We get a different angle on “selling out” via the visiting filmmaker Jerry Skyler (an unidentified performer billed as “Himself”), a Tyler Perry–type producer-director-actor who’s made a fortune playing a shuffling time-warped “darkie” character named Mistah Griggins — enough to purchase his own island à la Marlon Brando. His own sore-winner defensiveness echoes that of Moses (he shuts down Sam’s withering criticism by reminding her that Michelle Obama only knows one of them, and warns her that she doesn’t “get to tell people where they can and cannot see themselves”), but he seems genuinely interested in helping the careers of artists who have different visions from his. Skyler has been assigned to mentor Sam, who idolizes a more uncompromising art-house-type filmmaker named Cynthia Fray (Laverne Cox), who is made to sound like a cross between Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee. (“If one more black person articulately makes an argument against racism that’s set to jazz music, I’m going to move to a new house,” grouses Antoinette Robertson’s CoCo, interrupting Sam’s marathon of Fray films.)

This sort of thing won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, clearly — and one could certainly make the case that Dear White People seems to have decided to vamp a bit, aesthetically as well as intellectually, while it figures out what its next move might be. Some subplots and characters get lost along the way, but here, too, there are gems of dialogue and performance and a breakout performance by a new cast member, Griffin Michaels, who plays D’unte, the openly gay teacher’s assistant who acts as a cultural Sherpa to Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) as he navigates his new identity. This might be a train wreck of a season in some ways, but it’s a glorious one, spilling food for thought everywhere.

The original version of this article misidentified the actor who plays Lionel Higgins. Vulture regrets the error.

Dear White People Season Three Leans Into Its Difficulties