Netflix’s new series Deaf U, an unscripted program about students at Gallaudet University, a private school for deaf and hard of hearing people, is being marketed by the fascinating term docusoap. The series, which I inhaled with the fistfuls-of-popcorn fervor of a desperate person enjoying a break from current events, follows several young people as they talk about deaf culture, the pleasure and tension of dating and friendship, and the specific challenges of Gallaudet. It’s pop-y and fun, but it’s also doing some fascinating sociological heavy lifting. As the series weaves in and out of journalistic observation and frankly voyeuristic, messy stories about cliques, sex, and snobbery, I found myself trying to pin down exactly what a docusoap is.
It’s pretty easy to pick out the two poles. On the documentary side, there are parts of Deaf U that feel like deep-dive explainers — and I mean that in the best possible sense — about the complicated and rich internecine cultural divides inside deaf culture. Like many of the best documentaries, they use personal stories as entry points for bigger, more abstract ideas. Cheyenna Clearbrook and Alexa Paulay-Simmons help tease apart some of the sticky, deeply held elitism within some deaf communities, especially from students who come from deaf families and attended deaf high schools. Rodney Burford and Daequan Taylor, both students with some hearing, talk about their liminal unease in both the hearing world, where they’re considered disabled, and the deaf world, where they’re sometimes seen as not deaf enough. It’s great, fascinating documentary material, shot and edited with a really careful eye toward what details matter and how to balance personality and information.
The soap side is just as distinctive and identifiable as the documentary side. Deaf communities and Gallaudet in particular are small, insular groups, and the message that pops up again and again is that everyone knows and cares about everyone else’s business. Alexa dates her way through Gallaudet, having deep heart-to-heart conversations with Daequan about their past relationship while also sleeping with someone else and flirting with yet another guy. Dalton Taylor is attracted to Alexa but seems equally attracted to beer. Deaf U is interested in deaf culture, but it’s equally as interested — maybe even more interested — in who’s sleeping with whom, what college kid has a childhood friendship that seems to be souring, who’s jealous, who’s horny, who’s recently realized they’re gay. It’s a dramatic, gossipy show. If Deaf U were a person, it’d see you walk into a party and wave you over so it could tell you all the dirt.
My question about Deaf U and about docusoaps more broadly is about how its two halves play together. There’s a sense in unscripted television that much of the soapiest stuff is at least partially manufactured. Reality TV viewers have become literate in the ways that unscripted TV shows create story, either on set where producers needle their cast members into dramatic outburst, or after the fact in editing rooms where hours of raw footage are molded into a pointed, easy narrative.
As a soap, where does Deaf U fall? Some of what appears on the show is incredibly personal and also has been obviously prompted by the producers, at least a little. There’s a scene with Cheyenna and Rodney for instance, where they go on a date together. They both explain the date as curiosity, as a fun thing they’re doing just to see what could happen. But everything about the date is yelling, I was set up by someone else because we are both participants on this show! Cheyenna and Rodney don’t seem like they spend time with the same friends, and they go for a daylight walk at some of the most recognizable Washington, D.C., monuments/tourist traps. Neither of them seems to really know what they’re doing there. It’s perfectly pleasant and they’re both wildly charismatic TV presences, so the fact that there’s no sense of motivation doesn’t matter all that much. But scenes like that feel constructed in a way that is at odds with the “docu” half of Deaf U’s self-identified genre.
Does it matter if Deaf U is an amalgam of two things that are fundamentally at odds in their essential motivations? Does it matter if some of its scenes appear highly produced to the point where some of the events look manufactured, while other parts are transparent, unguarded, vulnerable disclosures about these peoples’ inner lives? Does the falseness of Cheyenna and Rodney’s date undermine the pain of Cheyenna’s social isolation? Does the fact that I can’t tell whether producers suggested Alexa and Dalton go to a late-night date in a deserted swimming pool make the awkwardness of that date better? Or worse? If this show is aiming to present a real, meaningful look at deaf culture, does it matter that some of its culture appears designed to be shown on this Netflix series?
I don’t know. I do know that Deaf U is compelling, whatever wrestling matches you may find yourself in about its documentary side versus its soap side. For me, it is a reality show, made with exquisite production values and a really careful, thoughtful perspective about how to weave deaf culture into a bingeable teen drama. The docusoap term seems mostly like an effective bit of marketing.
Except! Except — there was one moment in the series when its two sides came together perfectly, and I could see the ideal of how docusoaps could work. One of the most jaw-dropping stories in the series is about Alexa and Daequan’s previous relationship, and its pinnacle is in a scene where Alexa reveals some extremely personal information about both of them. They’re sitting outside as they have this conversation, in full view of all the other students in this very public place. This in itself is suspicious. What college students would have this talk in person in broad daylight instead of over Snapchat at 2 a.m.? But never mind, here they are on this public bench, and one of the delicate nuances of speaking in sign means that they cannot lower their voices. Anyone who looks at them can see what they’re saying. So Alexa, about to reveal this information, looks behind her and then carefully draws her hands in toward her chest, making sure to keep her signs out of prying eyelines.
It is a beautiful documentary moment, the kind of detail a camera can capture that says so much with such a small gesture. But in a minute, the lovely detail of the oh-so-quiet hands is forgotten. Because, I’m sorry, what did Alexa say?! She thinks Daequan did what?! The documentary steps back, and the soap takes over.