‘Dear White People’: Being Socially Conscious Gets Trickier in Tangled Third Season

Everyone is all over the place in the new season of Netflix’s “Dear White People.” The confusion makes sense in a way, because as college progresses the characters are slowly edging out of a student mentality and idealism begins to clash with real world harshness. Like some other notable shows of recent years this one is an adaptation of a hit indie film of the same name. Justin Simien, who helmed the movie, remains the key creative force of the series. This has assured that even as the plotting gets muddled, the satirical edge and biting social commentary remain strong. 

As we enter this third season at the prestigious Winchester University, Sam (Logan Browning) and Lionel (DeRon Horton) are on the verge of uncovering a secret order of elite black notables called “The Order.” However all the intrigue from last season might have been for nothing, it turns out the Order dissolved long ago. Cut to a few months later and Sam has left her campus radio show Dear White People and is in a kind of personal limbo. She’s lagging in prepping her pitch for a thesis film project, is still rattled by her father’s death and prefers to spend time with boyfriend and fellow film student Gabe (John Patrick Amedori). Taking over the show is Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), but even she’s finding it hard to focus on their old social causes since her relationship with Reggie (Marque Richardson) is beginning to lag. Everyone seems to be losing old fires, a fact not lost on Al (Jemar Michael), who is frustrated over nobody signing a petition to turn Winchester into a sanctuary campus. Elsewhere Coco (Antoinette Robertson) becomes a caffeine addict in trying to get a fellowship never given to a black student.

It seems to be a running theme this year that shows based on movies or stand-alone novels are reaching the point of overextending their narratives, struggling to find cohesion. The second season of “Dear White People” solidified its place as one of Netflix’s best series, refined and provocative. This season loses the vignette spirit because it’s wondering how to keep every character intriguing for 10 new episodes. Now instead of individual character episodes, every chapter functions like a more traditional campus show where it cuts from dorm to dorm, person to person. Notable characters like Sam are left for the first half of the season dealing with simple student conundrums, like procrastinating on presentations or getting addicted to a streaming show. 

But don’t count Simien out. If there isn’t much engagement in terms of plotting, the show still has great energy as a social satire and overall commentary. Intersectionality becomes a major theme this season. Scenes like Joelle having a white guest on her show encourage her not to let racial history tie down her voice are bold, and there is a hilariously provocative satirizing of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as white feminist pop art. Sam obsessively watches the show which is rewritten with heightened sexual innuendo. Notice a moment where the Elisabeth Moss look-alike weeps about America being gone, lamenting losing “the land of the free” and a black handmaid gives her a look like “what are you talking about?” Other story elements explore privilege with dramatic nuance, like Gabe finding out he’s out of funds for his thesis and his wealthy parents can’t help because of their own legal problems. Troy (Brandon P Bell) starts feeling a social wake-up call at the campus comedy magazine he works in, suspecting he’s the token black student meant to prove there’s adequate representation. He drinks and parties with his fellow bros, but senses he’s not completely accepted into the pack. A scene written with great tact and satirical intelligence involves Lionel finally going to a gay campus group party and suddenly finding himself overwhelmed by all the new gender neutral, non-binary terminology. He rushes into the bathroom to google it all. A bookish sort, he prefers to go cruising in the library (where success is apparently easier to find quite fast).

The more streamlined story elements this season still work well however. Rashid (Jeremy Tardy) confesses in a well-written bit of youthful impulse to Joelle that he’s in love with her. She squarely puts him in the friend zone but he has a point when he says Reggie never seems to be around. Reggie, who has been internally unstable since a cop pulled a gun on him at that ill-conceived party in season one, appears to find a good mentor in Moses Brown (Blair Underwood), a Winchester professor who left to make a fortune at Google. He’s developing a new life management app that inspires Reggie’s desires to do something big in life. And then Brown is accused by a student of sexual assault and “Dear White People” finally touches on the #MeToo culture with all the complexity it entails. Much of this season grapples with the question of what does selling out mean, and if social awareness and activism should always be toned down once it’s time to work in the real world. Joelle interviews Brown on her show and decides to not bring up controversial issues about his feel good, hyper capitalist image because she knows Brown could help Reggie. Simien himself plays a film professor who can only smirk when Sam insists she can do her thesis film without extra help or the department’s resources.

By the end of the season the order plotline does return when Lionel is given a secret code at the library and the pace quickens. But that in itself is a storyline that can feel too whacky for the kind of sharp satire “Dear White People” is so good at delivering. It’s certainly fun, but this show is best when it truly wants to say things, even uncomfortable things. We can only hope that the next season finds firmer footing, but season three is still a course worth crashing.

Dear White People” season three begins streaming Aug. 2 on Netflix.