'Dear White People' Season 2: TV Review
In its second season, Netflix's college comedy remains a blueprint for how to bring a movie to the small screen.
The TV graveyard of the past decade is littered with movies that were made into television shows for absolutely no reason. Even a success like FX's Fargo is a weird anomaly, because although each of the three Fargo anthology seasons has been among my favorite things on television, I can't look at what Noah Hawley has done and say, "Here's why this was a good idea," other than trusting smart showrunners is usually a good investment.
Netflix's Dear White People, returning for its second season this week, has evolved into an unlikely leading exemplar for how to bring a movie to the small screen and do it right. It's no slight to Justin Simien's 2014 film to say that while the feature played perfectly well as a 108-minute movie, it worked even better as an extended TV pilot, an introduction to the world and residents of Winchester University, ending with the feeling that all good pilots should conclude on: the sense that there were many, many more stories to be told in this universe with these characters.
The first season of Dear White People still starts with a few episodes that reintroduce the premise and replay beats from the movie. Around the fifth episode, a spectacular half-hour directed by Barry Jenkins and culminating in a bumbling campus cop busting a house party and pointing a gun at one of our African-American leads, Dear White People settles into its own voice and half-hour rhythms. It's what the movie is and much more.
Season two — I reject Netflix's silly "Vol. 2" classification — continues that growth over 10 excellent episodes that find Dear White People exhibiting increased confidence in the types of stories it can tell, the depth of subject matter it can attack and the wide tonal palette it feels comfortable with. More than anything, Dear White People marks itself as a show that more people (and more critics) should be talking about, because few shows on TV feel as eager to instigate as many meaningful conversations.
We pick up the story two weeks after the protest and town meeting at Winchester from the first season finale, which was only a week after that ill-fated house party. (It's best to leave aside when, exactly, that means the new season of Dear White People is taking place, since the answer would be "sometime last year" even though the references are current.)
Sam White (Logan Browning) is in an existential funk, disinterested in her ordinary radio advocacy and falling into wormhole arguments with right-wing trolls on Twitter.
Reggie (Marque Richardson) is still experiencing PTSD after the rent-a-cop incident and mandated therapy with a campus shrink isn't helping.
Troy (Brandon P. Bell) returns a changed man after his act of heightened vandalism and he struggles to balance his place as a campus legacy with a newfound sense of liberation.
Lionel (DeRon Horton) is looking for a new writing outlet after his big exposé led to the shuttering of the Independent. He's also taking new interest in his social life and Winchester's history of secret societies.
All of the characters are facing a changed world, because a fire at the predominantly white Davis House has caused forced integration at the predominantly black AP House and the negotiation of public space has not been smooth.
That's what Dear White People is, at its heart, about. How do we negotiate differences in public spaces when there are topics we're afraid to broach and issues that leave us embarrassed or tongue-tied or outraged? Who can say which words? Who can introduce which ideas? Who can own which ideologies? Are there limits to free speech? How do we address the issues of the present when we're still evading grappling with their historical context? The prism is usually one of race, but not always. This is a show that frankly discusses politics but, unless I'm misremembering, never says the word "Trump." It's a show that can turn the topic of grits — sweet or savory? — into a debate of wider cultural and then smaller personal identity.
Justin Simien and his terrific team of writers approach the material from a specific perspective, one that isn't "fair and balanced," but never remains completely one-dimensional. The season's exploration of the rise of alt-right forces on campus — including a "Dear Right People" counterprogram — is presented mostly through the reactions and eyes of our main characters, while also injecting pragmatism through its depiction of one particular anonymous tweeter and also a right-wing TV pundit played by a very high-profile guest star with personal ties to this property. From hoteps to abortion to documentary ethics to epigenetic inheritance to countless layered debates on appropriation, Dear White People would be a show that that would thrive in a weekly water-cooler debate environment if we still lived in a world in which we had water coolers and anybody watched TV shows weekly.
The episode dealing with abortion, marvelously directed by Kimberly Peirce, is one of several examples of Dear White People exploring its storytelling structure while still keeping its weekly focus on different individual characters. There's a hallucination-driven episode, directed by Steven Tsuchida, fueled by shrooms. There's one episode, a sad-yet-humorous depiction of grief directed by Janicza Bravo, that takes place mostly on an off-campus road trip. A standout half-hour, written by Jack Moore and directed by Simien, is mostly a theatrical two-hander with Sam and ex-boyfriend Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) confronting each other with the causes of their failed relationship in real time. (The entire roster of directors, including Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Charlie McDowell, and writers is worthy of praise.)
That bottle episode, and much of the season's home stretch, are a reminder that we slept a bit on how great Browning was in the first season and continues to be. She's fierce, feisty and funny, and she has stepped into Tessa Thompson's movie shoes without missing a step. This is a performance that should be landing Browning huge follow-up parts and also a place in any awards conversation.
She's not the only one. Maybe Browning, Horton and, getting a much bigger profile this season, Ashley Blaine Featherson feel like the second season's featured players, but Richardson, Bell and Antoinette Robertson all shine in their POV episodes. As the season progresses, we also get expanded glimpses of DJ Blickenstaff's Silvio, Obba Babatunde's Dean Fairbanks, Nia Jervier's Kelsey, Wyatt Nash's Kurt, among many others. Even if Browning feels like the star because she's the host of the titular radio show, this is an ensemble that's 20-plus actors deep, the sort of ensemble you could rarely service fully in a movie or even a movie franchise.
It's such a big and expanding universe that I don't even feel the need to complain that episodes this season regularly run beyond 30 minutes, which rarely happened in the first season. If too many Netflix shows suffer from bloat, this is an illustration of a show expanding because it has too much to say to be contained and Netflix giving the showrunners that room. It's the same reason it doesn't bother me that maybe the secret society stuff in the second season doesn't always work. Maybe Dear White People isn't sure yet how to also be a generation-spanning mystery. Watching the show built over two seasons leaves me with little doubt that Dear White People can grow into that genre as well.
In a Too Much TV landscape, Dear White People is a show I didn't write about at all in its first season, but it has become one of the best things on TV and deserves to be discussed as such.
Cast: Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, DeRon Horton, Antoinette Robertson, John Patrick Amedori, Marque Richardson, Ashley Blaine Featherson
Creator: Justin Simien
Premiered Friday, May 4, on Netflix.