There’s never been a better time to adapt a well-loved film into an obsessively watched television show: Fargo, Wet Hot American Summer, Bates Motel and countless others have translated their original films into quality, bite-sized pieces of entertainment while managing to expand on their existing mythology. And this week, Justin Simien’s Dear White People joins the ranks of some of the very best of the format, managing to actually improve upon the film on which it’s based while simultaneously filling a hole in an entertainment field that sorely needed a thoughtful entry.
Set at the fictional Harvard analogue Winchester University, Dear White People centers around a small collegiate social circle, all of whom reside in the same historically black dormitory, a crew that often gathers in the common area to hash out theories about a deeply ridiculous Shondaland riff or to listen to a satirical campus radio show titled (appropriately) Dear White People, a platform our lead Sam (Logan Browning) uses to call out the woefully un-woke and often deeply racist antics of those on her largely liberal and mostly white campus. Offering biting depth on issues as serious as police brutality and as jokingly self-aware as accusing the Republicans of inventing the McRib to “destroy black communities,” Sam quickly draws the attention of the onerous leader of a popular white-bro humor magazine on campus to pretty disastrous results.
The show follows the same cast of characters established in the film, but whizzes through the events of the movie in the span of one thirty minute episode, handily using its following nine installments to explore the inner lives of each of its characters. The outspoken politically aware Sam, the shy and closeted Lionel (DeRon Horton) the heavily pressured Troy (Brandon P Bell, returning from the film) and the status-obsessed CoCo (Antoinette Robertson) all are present, but the shorthand character types that allowed them to be quickly absorbed in the original film are ditched in favor of character-specific deep dives that shed considerable thought-provoking light on each.
The writing is even sharper than that of Simien’s feature film, sporting a devilishly dark sense of humor specked with Whedonesque pop culture references. It’s a YA show by way of its youthful characters and gorgeous cast – ”which CW show are we in?” Sam muses during one particularly melodramatic conversation – and the series also makes a point to explore sexuality amongst black youth. But Dear White People never loses track of the complicated issues at its heart. The exhaustion of constant social involvement and the near impossibility of political unification is ever-present as the series manages to find humor in the most unexpected of places. (In one of Dear White People’s best subversive gags, Sam unknowingly hands out protest flyers that read “I can’t breath” rather that “I can’t breathe.”)
Sure, the show takes a moment to find its sea legs. Its satire occasionally hits so broadly as to lose some of its impact, and it seems to struggle to find its narrative footing as Simien finds his way out of the existing narrative of his film and into the new one he constructs following its events. But for every misstep there is a fascinating and important conversation Simien presses: of police violence, of discrimination within the black community, of familial pressure and what it means to be a black face in largely white spaces. Simien offers a strong anchor for the show as the primary writer on nearly every episode, deferring the director’s chair to indie powerhouses like Tina Mabry and Barry Jenkins for a few of the episodes.
For all the show’s obvious brilliance, it seems possible that the controversy over the its title and initial trailer could overshadow the series itself. But that would be a shame – the show’s tagline “bet you think this show is about you” is apt: the series obviously isn’t anti-white, it’s simply devoted to telling black stories. Sure, Sam’s requisite white boyfriend Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) is treated to his own episode, but it’s the kind of briefly featured treatment that we might usually see extended to the lone black character in a series.
It’s that kind of inversion that makes Dear White People a vital new show in the landscape. And while the show may always be unfairly linked with the kind of knee-jerk internalized racism to its content and title, it’s a show that ultimately doesn’t need to tangle with such expectations. Even with its freshman year wobbles, Dear White People is above all devoted entirely to depicting the black experience in new and nuanced ways. Now when is school back in session?
Rating: ★★★★ Brightly written, brilliantly wrought, and bitingly smart.
All ten episodes of Dear White People will be available to stream on April 28.