The Good: Good characters, Decent performances, Engaging exploration of social issues, Genuinely funny
The Bad: Cops out on a few key moments
The Basics: Season 1 of Dear White People is smart, funny, and expresses well the complications of social interactions at an Ivy League college.
Before it aired, Dear White People got a lot of polarizing press, so much so that the sole reason I prioritized watching the first season today was that controversy brings in the readers. The thing is, from the outset, Dear White People Season 1 is surprisingly non-controversial in the statements it makes. The characters are not archetypes, the arguments are complicated and the show is anything but dry.
Dear White People fearlessly explores interethnic relations on an Ivy League University's campus. The season tackles racism, white privilege, satire, the genuine search for understanding, assimilation, and police violence, but the most impressive aspect of Dear White People is that the show is complicated and character-driven. Dear White People Season 1 smartly creates diverse (multi-faceted personalities, not just people of color!) and occasionally flawed characters who drive the stories. Instead of being a long diatribe or any sort of racist or race-baiting, Dear White People Season 1 just explores college activism and relationships with a fearless and honest quality to it. Even the aspects of the first season I was not happy about fit the characters - and they are college students who are still figuring out their values and what they actually want out of life and sometimes, that comes with experiments and mistakes. But at the core of all the issues raised in the first season of Dear White People are the characters.
And most of Dear White People Season 1 is incredibly smart and complicated. The season smartly keeps the plot going when it adds a time bomb, but in the best tradition of worthwhile television, the show does not wait long to set off the bomb . . . as opposed to playing for melodrama. In fact, the low points of Dear White People Season 1 are when it cops out on a few arguments that have no simple resolutions.
Samantha White is a sophomore at Winchester University where she has a radio show "Dear White People" to explore ethnic issues on campus. Samantha is a film studies major who learns that the campus's humor magazine, Pastiche is planning an annual party that is entirely insensitive to a particular group - this year is it a blackface party. Samantha makes waves at Winchester when she makes sure the party actually happens and then films the results. The blackface party allows sophomore Lionel to break out at the school newspaper by getting angry and crashing the event - and then writing about it. Troy, the son of the school's Dean, also uses the blackface party as a way to protect his father's institution by calling the police to break up the party.
As the various black student organizations try to figure out how to best bring attention to problems of ethnic relations at Winchester, Samantha takes a public hit for having a white boyfriend and the situation at the University reaches a fever pitch when a party starts to get out of control and the police are called. The white police officers overreact and pull a gun on Reggie, which sets off a chain of conflicts at the school which threaten to tear apart Sam and Gabe, Troy and his father and the dorms that many of the black students call home.
Dear White People Season 1 starts very strong and it does a good job of keeping viewers engaged. The show - largely - does an excellent job of portraying all sorts of different social groups with a requisite amount of respect and realism. Blacks, liberal whites, women, gay people, and hipsters are all represented with a decent amount of complexity and realism. In fact, the only group that is truly poorly represented is bisexuals. Most of the other groups fight emphatically against the stereotypes - for example, the primary gay character reacts to being called "girl" with the angry utterance that he is a man (demanding the respect that the stereotyped characters never do) - but the primary bisexual character on Dear White People embodies the worst stereotypes about bisexuals. Despite that, most of the other groups represented are treated with respect to their diverse views and complexities.
The only other strike (if it could be considered one) is that there is a little lag in the pacing of some of the later episodes. The show does an excellent job of avoiding becoming the Scandal parody that the season includes as a medium for the black students to come together for rowdy, critical viewings, but there are a few moments that tread toward melodrama or predictability. That said, most of the show is incredibly engaging and it frankly addresses a wide array of critical issues that divide the United States with a decent amount of respect and clarity.
For a television series that is so fearless on so many fronts, one of the key turning points in the plot for Dear White People comes as an action to end an argument too complicated to complete. That is not necessarily the fault of the writers of Dear White People; some debates do not have a resolution and no end point to the argument; they cannot be held responsible for not getting there. The problem with the scene is that the full magnitude of the argument is not even explored before the gun is jumped and the police burst in. This leaves the argument unfortunately unbalanced as the primary white character in the scene is clearly confused and genuinely seeing to understand the perspective of his friend, who happens to be black, but is getting (not literally) shot down.
Most of the first season of Dear White People does not skirt the issues and the plot events come organically as the result of character actions. In the first season of Dear White People, the key characters are:
Samantha White - A politically and socially-active film studies major who has a radio program, when she learns about a blackface party, she makes sure that it actually happens in order to bring the issue of interethnic relations to the forefront of Winchester University's student population. Samantha is dating Gabe and when that comes out, she is met with mixed reactions from her friends. Despite that, she finds herself falling more in love with Gabe and increasing her political activism on campus. But as she speaks truth to power, Samantha becomes conflicted when former friends like Troy and Coco organize a town hall meeting on campus while she works to protest the event. And when Reggie turns to her for support after having a gun shoved in his face, Samantha experiences tension in her relationship with Gabe and has to consider what she will stand for and what she will give up,
Lionel - Troy's roommate and a sophomore at Winchester University, he is an introvert who finally comes to terms with his sexuality. Around the time he comes out to Troy, he becomes more active with The Independent, the school newspaper that fights to deliver the truth to the student body. He pieces together who hacked Pastiche's account to make sure the blackface party occurred and, in an uncharacteristic move, lets out his rage at the event. He tries to report accurately the conflicts within the black community after Reggie has a gun pulled on him, which becomes difficult for him when learns privileged information on Troy,
Troy - The son of Winchester University's Dean, he has lived in his father's shadow for years. He is pushed to deal with administrators, alumni, and donors as a prop for his father when all he really wants to do is get high and have sex. He finds himself drawn to both a teacher and Coco, who sees him as a stepping stone to her own ambitious plans. He accepts Lionel's coming out unflinchingly and often finds himself in conflict with Samantha's more aggressive political views,
Coco - Samantha's former roommate, she is a pragmatist who has plans to find a man with whom she may form a power couple. She sees Troy as a means to achieve her goal. She argues against violence and radical change, which often puts her at odds with Samantha. She delights in one-upping the members of the sorority who once rejected her,
Gabe - A film studies major, like Samantha, and a former t.a. of a class she took, the two bonded and started a clandestine relationship. He is a liberal white man who is frustrated by being marginalized and vilified when he attempts to do what he believes is right when a party gets out of hand,
Joelle - Samantha's best friend, she sits and supports Samantha during her broadcasts. She loves the McRib and chicken nuggets. She holds a torch for Reggie, but recognizes that he has a thing for Samantha,
and Reggie Green - A student who frequently hits on Samantha, only to get the cold shoulder, he is a trivia whiz and a computer programming expert. He is at a party when the police are called and has a gun shoved in his face. Traumatized, he turns to poetry and Samantha to try to get through the ordeal.
Arguably one of the most impressive aspects of Dear White People in its first season is how much fresh talent is present in the show. To the best of my knowledge, the only performers I'd ever seen in the first season of Dear White People were Obba Babatunde and John Rubenstein who have recurring supporting roles. Led by Logan Browning, Dear White People has a young cast of incredibly talented performers who has impressive range, especially of body language. Marque Richardson, DeRon Horton, and Brandon P Bell contrast Browning's frequent delivery of powerful rhetoric with impressive physical performances where their body language tells much of their story.
Dear White People Season 1 is surprisingly funny and there are very few moments that are difficult to watch; the show maturely and smartly approaches its complexities in a fundamentally entertaining way. That makes the first season of Dear White People an essential show to watch!
For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
"Smile" - Doctor Who
The Walking Dead - Season 7
Thirteen Reasons Why - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 3
Iron Fist - Season 1
Love - Season 2
Santa Clarita Diet - Season 1
A Series Of Unfortunate Events - Season 1
One Day At A Time - Season 1
Travelers - Season 1
"Happy Fuckin' New Year" - Sense8
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"All The Madame's Men" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"The Once And Future Flash" - The Flash
"Aruba" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Ace Reporter" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.