'Dear White People' Season 3: TV Review

Lara Solanki/Netflix
Still clever and strongly acted, but a bit more muddled.
8/2/2019

After becoming one of TV's best shows in its second season, Justin Simien's provocative and funny campus-set Netflix series takes a bit of a step back.

As a preamble: In its third season, Dear White People remains one of the best shows on TV that you might not be watching. Justin Simien's Netflix adaptation of his Sundance-toasted feature is a paragon of movie-to-TV adaptations, putting trenchant social commentary and deftly written dialogue in the mouths of an ensemble of future stars, with a roster of top-tier directing talent that has included Barry Jenkins, Kimberly Peirce and Simien himself.

I lead with that because, in the balance, Dear White People continues to be a show well worth seeking out and that's especially true if you haven't even started it. But the third season still stands as a minor disappointment. The growth curve that Dear White People began in its first season and continued with nary a bump in the second would have been hard to maintain and, indeed, the new run of 10 episodes is marred by a gap-filled season-long narrative, questionable concentration on a slew of previously supporting characters and thematics muddled enough that the finale, scripted and helmed by the series creator, almost grinds to a halt for an explication of several episode-spanning messages.

To his credit, Simien seems to know that he's attempting to do something different and not inherently easy or smooth.

"People change. If everyone stayed exactly the same, life would be tedious and predictable like the third season of a Netflix show," states Marque Richardson in the premiere, one of multiple references in that single episode to the sense that Netflix shows are, apparently, prone to stagnation in their third seasons.

This season, everybody is in a state of flux and most of the characters are pushing up against barriers, institutional or psychological.

Sam (Logan Browning), for example, has quit hosting her radio show and, for the first time, she's struggling to find her voice as an artist, torn between the uncompromising work of her filmmaking idol (Laverne Cox in a one-episode cameo) and her new faculty mentor, a Tyler Perry-esque director (Simien). Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) finds himself without financial resources and forced to examine how much of his privilege, largely depicted as being racially based, was actually economic. Lionel (DeRon Horton) has lost interest in progressive journalism and has poured himself into a new writing project and expanding his gay horizons. Reggie finds a new mentor in tech mogul Moses Brown (expertly over-polished Blair Underwood) and his growing obsession with Brown's wellness app is making a mess of his burgeoning relationship with Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson). Coco (Antoinette Robertson) is aspiring to a major fellowship that has never gone to a black woman. And Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is having issues with the way things are done at his campus comedy magazine and and his feeling that he's merely token representation.

If you've ever said, "But what makes Brooke (Courtney Sauls) tick?" and "Wouldn't it be nice to learn more about Muffy's (Caitlin Carver) family?" and "Should my interest in Kelsey (Nia Jervier) extend beyond her dog, Sorbet?" or "Wait, who the heck is Al (Jermar Michael)?" then this season has you covered. If not, you're likely to be frustrated by how diffuse the season feels and that's part of the point, I guess. Everybody is busy and everybody is busy with other things, rather than the things that brought them together in earlier seasons, so the campus black caucus meetings are becoming more and more sparsely attended. A new site of interactions is the coffee shop Ways & Beans, which has become the season's primary social nexus, but one that characters pass in and out of, rarely connecting and rarely allowing the season-long plots to coalesce until the last couple episodes.

You might also have noticed that I've made no mention of the secret society plotline that took up an unexpected amount of last season. I liked it as a humorous device and had some wariness about how the show would handle this genre detour if it became important. So far? Poorly. Giancarlo Esposito makes occasional appearances as the now on-camera narrator, yet somehow he feels like even more of a plot device in this context than he did when his voice has been guiding audiences along in the past. I honestly can't imagine that any viewers got deeply invested in Dear White People moving The Order front-and-center, but this treatment is neither committed nor forgotten sufficiently.

The series hasn't, thankfully, become intellectually toothless. One of the biggest threads running throughout is intersectionality, as characters are, as I said about Gabe earlier, being asked to focus and refocus their identities along gender, racial and financial lines. What are the tiers of disenfranchisement? What are the priorities of ally-ship? Do you have to choose allegiances and which pieces of your demographic makeup must you claim? There's provocative stuff here that touches on #MeToo, the sense of frustration and exhaustion many activists feel in Trump's America and more. Probably more than the first two seasons, though, there's a feeling that Simien and his writers are frustrated by the amount they have to say versus the ability to fold it into the story. This even extends to the TV parodies our characters watch each season, with two new examples introduced early before being discarded without payoff.

The cast is still a marvel, though there are cases in which their characters have become inconsistent in ways that are probably somewhat intentional — college as a time of personality change and built-in inconsistency. After two seasons of Browning's work here, as well as her gloriously unhinged performance in The Perfection, a largely toothless version of Sam, however thematically justified, is a tiny waste. I've lost any sense of Lionel as a character and the arc looking at the popularity of his new writing project makes very little sense, not that this is Horton's fault. Troy has become a much less interesting character in this latest iteration, ditto Joelle. Coco is maybe the season's central character for stretches, but other than a great Parent's Weekend episode, featuring the always-welcome Yvette Nicole Brown, what Robertson is given to play is a little one-note.

That Parent's Weekend installment is probably the third season's breakout episode, without nearing the level of the Jenkins episode from the first season or the Gabe-interviews-Sam bottle-ish episode from last season. Again, viewed in a vacuum, the third season of Dear White People is a good season of TV. It's just that the previous seasons had me expecting greatness.

Cast: Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, DeRon Horton, Antoinette Robertson, John Patrick Amedori, Marque Richardson, Ashley Blaine Featherson
Creator: Justin Simien
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)