'Deaf U': TV Review

Deaf U
Courtesy of Netflix/2020
More impressive as a representational leap than as a reality series.
10/9/2020

Nyle DiMarco executive produces a Netflix reality drama about the love lives of hard-of-hearing college students.

Most pop-cultural representations of deaf people frame them as anomalies among the hearing, their disability setting them apart from the mainstream. But in the new Netflix reality series Deaf U — set at Gallaudet University, a private college in Washington, D.C., for hard-of-hearing students — they are the norm. That hardly makes the campus a utopia; where there’s people — particularly young, attractive, single people with seemingly loads of free time — there’s bound to be drama.

There’s no question that Deaf U, which counts Gallaudet alum and deaf model Nyle DiMarco as one of its executive producers, is a huge leap in deaf representation onscreen. The show is a snapshot of the diversity among the hard of hearing: Here are deaf influencers, deaf party animals, deaf beer brewers, deaf poetry slammers, deaf fuckboys, deaf Southern Baptists, deaf reality-show villains.

Even more intriguing are the social hierarchies (seemingly informed by race and class, though that’s never explicitly said) that can make the small community of the hard of hearing feel claustrophobic, especially if its members are not part of “the Elite” — mean girls who grew up together in the same deaf-centric town, attended the same deaf-centric schools and don’t particularly care for anyone who doesn’t share their background.

The first half of the eight-part debut season is full of small insights into the lives of deaf college students: dorm doorbells that flicker light to indicate someone’s arrived, the impossibility of cuddling and signing at the same time, the advantage of carrying on full conversations in noisy bars and clubs. But Deaf U is a reality series first and foremost and, outside of the discussion of deaf politics and culture, not a particularly involving one.

The show follows three young men and three young women of various races, classes and sexualities as they cycle through friendships and relationships with one another. (The heavy focus on demographic diversity — and the Elite girls — does render the near-complete lack of women of color rather conspicuous.) Deaf U eases us into its world by initially spotlighting two Black friends who speak as they sign: skirt-chasing Daequan, who’s still reeling in unexpected ways from the death of his mother during his early adolescence, and cocky Rodney, the smartass son of Yale graduates who sometimes has to code-switch as “white Rodney” to fit in at Gallaudet.

Love triangles soon abound. Daequan has some unfinished business with Alexa, an Elite flirt who previously dated Rodney. Alexa begins the series with a significant other, but she can’t help eyeing Dalton, Rodney’s football teammate. Long over Alexa, Rodney semi-pursues Cheyenna, a fashion vlogger who’s quickly ostracized by the Elite girls for not signing fluently and for being too accommodating, in their eyes, to hearing viewers in her YouTube videos. And Cheyenna, who grew up in a conservative, religious household, has her feminist side encouraged by her friend Renate, a queer student coming to terms with the domestic abuse in her family in her early years.

It sounds like ambitious material, and it could be if Deaf U gave these “storylines” enough room to develop and breathe. But each episode is 20 minutes or fewer, never quite delivering on emotional impact or entertainment value. The relative thinness of the characterizations — and the emphasis on the cast’s not-that-interesting love lives — makes starker the other shortcomings in the series. There’s too little information on why Gallaudet has more than twice as many women as men (a ratio that the straight guys are more than happy to take advantage of), how instruction and educational materials might differ from those in mainstream colleges, or what factors that led to the “culture shock” of defiantly deaf culture that Cheyenna encountered when she matriculated there.

Deaf U illustrates aplenty that deaf kids can be hornily confused, too. But more context would have made its representational milestones more satisfying.

Premieres Friday, Oct. 9, on Netflix