THE SERIES “Dear White People”
WHEN | WHERE Now streaming on Netflix
WHAT IT’S ABOUT This 10-episode series — based on the 2014 movie of the same name, written and directed by Justin Simien — launched last Friday and picks up (roughly) where the movie left off: Student and radio host-provocateur Samantha White (Logan Browning) learns of a blackface party about to be held on the campus of (fictional) Ivy League Winchester University, and she uses her radio show called “Dear White People” to protest.
Meanwhile, campus big shot and legacy student Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell, reprising his movie role) isn’t much help, partly because his father, the college dean, doesn’t want him to be. Would-be journalist Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) is about to come out of the closet (and is crushing on Troy). Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) — Sam’s freshman roomie — has bigger problems than protests (her sorority sisters). Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) is in love with Sam. Reggie Green (Marque Richardson, also reprising) is, too.
MY SAY Once there was “Martin” and “The Bernie Mac Show” and now there’s “Atlanta” and “Insecure.” The difference is more than decades, networks, stars or labels. Those earlier series were “broadcast sitcoms.” The New Black TV Comedy is neither. Other than the obvious racial component, it avoids labels because these shows are about a highly specific point of view — what it means to be black in America if you’re Donald Glover (“Atlanta”), Issa Rae (“Insecure”), Kenya Barris (“black-ish), or Justin Simien.
“Dear White People” defiantly refuses to fit in a pigeonhole too. It’s often funny, but almost by accident. A congenial provocateur, its preoccupations are race, identity, assimilation and the raw nerve-ends that have energized movements like Black Lives Matter. It’s also a satire — when the mood strikes. It sends up identity politics and the radical chic jargon these would-be campus revolutionaries trade in — while unfolding in a presumably enlightened “post-racial” Ivy League setting where some white students see nothing wrong with a “blackface” kegger. Satire is pretty much unavoidable.
In fact, “Dear White People” is mostly a drama masquerading as a satire. In a climactic scene that arrives midway during the first season, a campus cop pulls a gun on Reggie during a party. Everything grinds to a dead stop — that party, the “satire,” the series, and especially viewer assumptions. Is “DWP” really going there? It’s not, but the scene is a buzz-kill and reality check. Up until that point, “Dear White People” has been about Coco and her sorority pledge, or Troy and his daddy issues. Now, it’s life and death. The real world intrudes in the ivory tower, and real world can be a cold, horrifying place.
The scene sets up the rest of the season without actually changing the show’s tone because after the incident, the campus goes back to business as usual. A tragedy was averted, but no one — and nothing — has much changed, other than Reggie. Casual racism at Winchester remains, and the law of unintended consequences takes over: Wealthy donors decide that to reduce racial tensions, the historically black residential house should be integrated. The black student union suddenly has something else to protest.
Speaking of protests, what about those sporadic ones that broke out over the title? Simien got plenty of flak over it before the movie came out, explaining in an essay for Medium that it “derived from a controversial radio show at the center of the conflicting points of views in the film." There was blowback before the TV series arrived, too, with Rolling Stone asking, “Is 'Dear White People 2017's Most Controversial Comedy?”
Not really: “DWP” does want to be provocative, just not too provocative. Mostly it just wants to keep an open mind and open heart. Mostly, it succeeds.
BOTTOM LINE Smart, engaging new show, with exceptional cast, that gets better episode by episode — always a good sign.