M*A*S*H has to be the greatest TV show based on a movie. I know there’s likely a big contingent who will go to bat for Buffy the Vampire Slayer – which I love love love – but the difference there is that Buffy the movie didn’t quite work, and Buffy the TV show got to improve on the original. But M*A*S*H? The movie is a classic, yet the show somehow manages to be better and more iconic than the movie (I fully expect some pushback on that from Altman diehards. Fair enough!).
Dear White People on Netflix is closer to M*A*S*H than Buffy; it’s based on a 2014 movie that’s quite great, but the TV version manages to take everything worked in the movie and make it even better. Season one was sort of the Evil Dead 2 of Dear White People – a retelling of the events of the movie with included aftermath – and it was a phenomenal achievement. Creator Justin Simien, who wrote and directed the movie, inherently understood the Netflix binge model, and the show’s format follows one character per episode, with all the stories colliding in the finale. He did this better than Arrested Development season 4’s much-heralded experiment, which I think fundamentally failed. Dear White People focuses on one character at a time, but it doesn’t eliminate the others; it’s sort of the Marvel Cinematic Universe model of TV storytelling, where characters can and will cross over in their individual stories but the focus is always on the episode’s lead.
That format works because it cuts up the flow of the show. Too many binge-oriented shows play out like opium dreams, endless sludgy ribbons of narrative. The aim is to keep you trapped in the story, to never give episodes defining characteristics or end points. But each episode of Dear White People feels complete in its own way, like an episode of a TV show should. Simien isn’t trying to trap you inside his narrative, he wants you to keep bingeing because you’re INVESTED in his narrative. It’s not a passive binge experience (where you just allow the countdown to run out and start the next episode because why not, Daredevil episode 4 ended functionally in the middle of a scene and you want to see how this scene ends) but an active one.
Which is fitting, because Dear White People asks a lot of the audience. You need to be involved, and not in that Westworld “which timeline is this?” way. Dear White People continuously throws big questions about race, culture, gender and sexuality at the audience… and then has the audacity to not have any answers.
Did I say audacity? I meant the wisdom. When you get into an argument with a right wing troll online they’ll say shitty things and cover their asses with the infuriating line “I’m just asking questions.” It’s like their weaponization of “free speech” – the concept is solid, but it’s being used wrong. Simien is using it right. His show posits questions, some of them incredibly sticky, difficult and discomforting, and then he lets his characters chew them over. But his characters don’t speak with one voice; he allows each character the nuance to approach each situation from their own point of view*, and they don’t always come to the conclusions that you might expect, or agree with.
*he’s so good at this that when it doesn’t happen – like in the VOLUME 2 episode in which Joelle starts dating a “Hotep” – you really feel the weight of authorial intent.
The wisdom comes from understanding that some questions don’t have answers, that life is complicated and tricky and that our perspectives color much of what we understand. By not answering the questions Simien helps us understand that life isn’t a test with an answer key locked in a teacher’s drawer, it’s a continuous experience of learning and growing and that what is right for you today may not be right for you tomorrow.
That doesn’t mean Dear White People eschews morals or that it gives a pass to those who behave in negative ways. There ARE bad guys in the show, whether they be a “Hotep” or a racist campus cop, but Dear White People is more about the questions of how to navigate life while trying to be a conscious human being doing the right thing. There are characters who are very specifically NOT doing the right thing, and the show treats them as the deserve to be treated.
But it also understands how easy it is to do the wrong thing. There’s a whole arc in Volume 2 that connects Sam, host of the college radio show Dear White People and the centerpiece of the series, with a black pundit who argues conservative positions on TV talking head shows. (Part of the connection is that Tessa Thompson, who played Sam in the movie, plays the conservative) There’s way less distance between Sam and this pundit than Sam would like, and the road to becoming that pundit is paved with all the best intentions in the world.
Volume 2 comes at a fascinating moment. The movie came out in 2014, when Obama was still president and before the culture had become ‘woke’ (seriously. Go back and watch some movies and TV from like 2010 to 2014 and see how different everybody is, what language they’re using very casually). The movie was like a premonition; Simien had his finger on the pulse of America and realized that the post-racial world a lot of people thought we lived in was actually complete horseshit.
The first season, which was being created at a time when everybody thought Hillary Clinton would be the next president, continues the prescience of the movie. But it’s Volume 2 that really gets current, and I don’t just mean in terms of its references, which are so fresh they’re still flopping around and getting water everywhere. Created in the wake of Donald Trump’s coup and the escalating mainstreaming of white supremacist views, Volume 2 has a searing immediacy that can only come from something rooted in history.
Every episode of Volume 2 opens with a little lesson about institutional racism in the history of Winchester College, often played against the kinds of moments that would be called progress (one of the most troubling has Winchester’s first black student sitting in a phrenology class where the craniums of slaves are measured to scientifically prove that black people are inferior. This, Simien is telling us, is STILL the black experience in majority white spaces). On a plot level these history lessons inform the storyline about a possible secret society operating underground throughout the decades, but they really work on a thematic level, reminding us that the struggles of black students at Ivys like Winchester aren’t new, or unique – they’re part of a continuous struggle that goes back centuries, that today’s students are just the latest generation continuing the same battle that stretches on without end.
But every generation has its own ways of fighting that battle. In 2018 the fight has gone online, and Sam finds herself trapped in an endless flame war with Twitter trolls. This is surely inspired by a) the generalized reality of the moment and b) Justin Simien’s own experience with “This show is racist against white people” ding dongs when season one aired. It’s exciting to watch a show that understands both the thrill and the futility of fighting online, the way it becomes as addictive as any substance… and the way it can corrupt you fully.
One of the things I’ve come to understand in my own journey is that the battles I was having online were being waged with a sense of righteousness, but my own behavior wasn’t righteous. Coming hard at GamerGaters and Ghostbros and alt-right weiners felt great, but the tactics I was using were rotting my soul away from the inside. Sam gets a look at this when she meets Tessa Thompson’s conservative pundit and realizes that there is a difference between fighting the good fight and being addicted to the fight in general. When you’re addicted to the fight in general you just fight, and eventual you’ll fight on any side, as long as it gives you the attention and reinforcement you crave. Good guys, bad guys – the likes and retweets all look the same, and they all lead to the same book deals and speaking tours.
All of the show’s thematic heaviness and deep social justice thinking is leavened by an incredible sense of humor and a spry, exciting shooting style. Dear White People just looks GREAT, and it makes use of a wide array of storytelling styles and visual flairs to keep things interesting. It makes sense that a show dedicated to the diversity of human experience would employ a diversity of styles to make its points.
The humor goes from dry to absurd, and the show is meticulous in how it balances its tones. Episodes can pivot from tear-grabbing moments of big emotional upheaval to laugh-out-loud silliness in a heartbeat, but without ever sacrificing the honesty and reality at the core of the scene. Again, it’s part of how Dear White People demands more of the audience – this isn’t a drone you can put on in the background, occasionally checking in with between Candy Crush games, it’s a show that wants your active participation, that wants you going up and down, laughing and crying from moment to moment.
At the center of the tone lies the characters. Dear White People has a great ensemble, and now in Volume 2they have a chance to go new places and find new aspects of themselves, and bounce off the established relationships in cool ways. None of the characters are on obvious journeys, and none of them are going in straight lines; their stories have as many setbacks as steps forward. But it isn’t soap opera plotting, where characters never get to really grow and change, it’s more of a reflection of reality, of how we grow in messy spurts, and how some parts of ourselves grow at different rates than other parts.
What makes Dear White People the TV show superior to the movie is that it allows all the characters time to express themselves. Some characters who were, due to the restrictions of a movie’s feature length, given shorter shrift have more space to live on TV. Coco especially gets a chance to be more than a side character, and the depth and nuance Antoinette Robinson brings to the role is beautiful. DeRon Horton gets a chance to expand Lionel, the nerdy gay journalist, in ways you wouldn’t expect, including showing off a shockingly ripped bod. And Logan Browning is phenomenal as Volume 2 Sam, a woman in a rolling crisis who needs to figure her shit out ASAP.
Those are the new actors; Simien was able to bring along some of his movie stars, and they remain incredible. Brandon P Bell continues the weird, unexpected journey of Troy Fairbanks, the once golden boy who threw it all away at the end of last season. And Marque Richardson Jr is giving an Emmy-worthy performance as Reggie, the tough guy whose police-based trauma last season continues to play out on him and his understanding of his masculinity in surprising, touching and funny ways. I gotta say – Reggie is my favorite character on this show, if only because his journey has been so unusual and inspiring.
I love Dear White People, and Volume 2 kicks everything up a notch… and ends on a cliffhanger. Shit gets real weird at the end, and I’m dying to see how Simien and company pick up the pieces in season 3. But I’ll be honest – the meta narrative aspects of how Volume 2 ended interest me less than where the characters are left off. They’re all on the precipice of incredible change and this season, which saw many of them lost in the wilderness in their own ways, has put them in positions to do incredible things next year. And also have incredible problems and make incredible mistakes and confront incredible issues with humanity and humor and a sense that we can make this world better if we make ourselves better.