Netflix’s newest reality show gets both turnt and insightful.
The Netflix reality show Deaf U follows a variety of college students attending Gallaudet University. Anyone expecting any background on the college in Deaf U’s initial episode will have to turn to an Orientation Day brochure. Deaf U hits the ground running as if the viewer has always been here just like the experienced students the program chronicles. It’s a subtle but effective decision that cements this show as one that won’t be holding the hand of hearing viewers. The individuals seen in Deaf U are here to share their everyday experiences, not deliver exposition.
The eight episodes of Deaf U follow a variety of individuals with varying degrees of deafness. These include football player Dalton, social media influencer Cheyanne, confident Rodney and romantically-tormented Alexa. The show’s primary focus remains on the relationship drama between the characters; in the words of Alexa, “It’s common in the deaf community to run into your ex.” That phenomenon becomes even more pronounced when it’s restricted to a single college campus. Sparks fly just as often as harsh words.
If you’ve had any exposure to reality television about twenty-somethings, parts of Deaf U will prove familiar. All the cornerstones of reality TV show drama — making out, working out and lashing out — are here in abundance. But such cornerstones provide a space for Deaf U to quietly subvert the way most media depicts the deaf: rather than be defined by tragedy, people like Daequan and Cheyenna can party, drink, and have fun.
As a cherry on top, Deaf U does not draw attention to this detail. It is just woven into the fabric of the show. That is true for several background details in the program that reflect the unique day-to-day lives of its central subjects. The prominent use of video chatting in lieu of phone calls; Renate observing how she cannot communicate with American Sign Language to her friend while getting her nails done.
The individuals seen in Deaf U are here to share their everyday experiences, not deliver exposition.
Deaf U casually lends such thoughtful insight into the individual worlds of its on-camera subjects. This is particularly true during the interview portions, which allow the likes of Dalton and Anna to just sign to the camera about how they are feeling. Rodney especially flourishes in these segments with his hysterical and astute observations (like categorizing Dalton dramatically flushing a $1,000 hearing-aid down a toilet as “white people shit”).
In the second half of Deaf U’s first season, these thoughtful interview segments begin to take center stage. Rambunctious antics, like a Halloween party, still have a presence in these later episodes. But the main subjects of Deaf U also begin to open up in deeply personal ways. This is especially true of Cheyenna, whose raw testimony regarding childhood abuse in the sixth and seventh episodes of Deaf U prove to be the most devastating scenes in the whole season.
Whenever Deaf U gets up close and personal with its central subjects, it proves compelling. It doesn’t even have to get as heavy as Cheyenna’s most personal scenes to be engaging. Just look at a low-key scene of Daequan and RaeLynn going on a cute date to the Lincoln Memorial. Maybe this proved thrilling is a side effect of being stuck indoors alone for seven months. Whatever the reason, just watching these two eating pizza and making jokes together was enough to capture my attention.
No person better exemplifies how well Deaf U works with personal material than Renate. From the moment she first shows up on-screen smooching her girlfriend on the grass, it is clear Deaf U will be lending an especially intimate peek into Renate’s life, which combines drastically different tonal extremes. We get to see joyous moments like Renate’s sensual slam poetry session. But, the viewer is also privy to a cathartic and raw therapy session where she tosses objects at a wall. For these two scenes alone, Renate emerges as this programs MVP and a microcosm of how it isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with the people it chronicles.
That makes it a shame that Renate is totally missing from the season finale. Her absence here proves extra curious given that the show had set up Renate meeting her girlfriend’s conservative family. That subplot goes unresolved as part of Deaf U’s struggle to provide balanced screen time to its ensemble of subjects. While figures like Dalton and Anna become the de facto leads, other compelling individuals like Renate get left in the dust. Meanwhile, entirely absent from the entire season is perspectives from deaf women of color. Here’s to hoping future seasons lend an insightful lens to this segment of the deaf community.
In terms of who its first season does chronicle, though, Deaf U turns out to be a fine accomplishment. Like nestling a dog’s vitamin within a slice of ham, Deaf U smuggles in introspective material inside a whole lot of partying and romantic drama. While not always as either original or expansive as it could be, Deaf U is still a reality show very much worth enrolling in.
Deaf U is now available on Netflix.