A more expansive season opts for character beats over cohesive storytelling.
The third season of the Netflix adaptation of Justin Simien‘s film opens immediately where S2 left off: after a season of decoding clues, Sam (Logan Browning) and Lionel (DeRon Horton) discover the previously unseen Narrator (Giancarlo Esposito) in the Bell Tower. The pre-titled card sequence is entirely dedicated to their conversation, as the unnamed man explains the principles of the secret all-Black society The Order and explains that if they wish to join, they must “murder the narrator.”
The statement – metaphorical, of course – doesn’t mean much to either student, but over the course of the season, both Sam, Lionel and privileged bad boy Troy (Brandon P Bell) come to realize that they have to change the way that their stories are told. Season 3 is inherently about storytelling, the rigid structures that creators box themselves in to and how finding yourself (and what matters to you) often requires stepping outside of your comfort zone.
For Troy, this means negotiating his role as the lone Black comedian writing for Pastiche, the campus humour magazine run by pampered rich white boy Kurt (Wyatt Nash). When Kurt’s tyrannical leadership style rubs Troy the wrong way, he attempts a coup that results in a new creative venture with Abigail (Sheridan Pierce), the put-upon lone female writer who isn’t taken seriously because she reminds people of Hilary’s fake laugh.
For Lionel, this means eschewing his responsibilities as the Editor of Winchester’s New Independent magazine in favour of exploring his burgeoning sexual appetite. In one of the season’s most enjoyable, albeit slight, storylines Lionel adopts the nom-de-plume of Chester and begins to write lurid, purple prose gay erotica that the entire campus gets hooked on.
For Sam, this results in no shortage of apathy: she no longer has her Dear White People radio show, her excitement for activism has been quelled by the events of season two, and she has no idea what she’s doing with her junior thesis video project. Sam spends a great deal of time randomly filming people or preoccupying herself with bad television (Dear White People’s new “in-show” joke series is a rip-off of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is nowhere near as funny or subversive as its former riff on Scandal).
The thematic aimlessly of the characters bleeds into Dear White People’s story telling…
Overall Browning takes a step back as the series becomes even more of a group ensemble; Sam is reduced to one of nearly a dozen characters who take turns in the spotlight. Structurally the series also does away with one of its most novel storytelling approaches, which involved zeroing in on a single character to give them the star treatment for an episode (or two).
While this enables most of the secondary or peripheral characters a greater opportunity to shine and ensures that no one’s favourite disappears for too long a stretch, it also means that Dear White People fails to dig as deeply into what makes its characters click. Rather than spend 25-30 minutes in a single character’s headspace, the audience is now only privy to a few scenes before another character walks away (sometimes literally) with the plot.
This isn’t always a bad thing as it carves out room for break-out characters like D’unte (Griffin Matthews), the acerbic experienced queer who works in the College mobile health truck. He is introduced befriending Lionel, but D’unte also recruits Sam’s TA filmmaker boyfriend, Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) into a wage dispute with the school when the latter’s trust fund falls through.
D’unte likely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea: he’s dangerously on the edge of being a catty caricature, but Matthews brings so much vitality to the performance that he’s a breath of fresh air whenever D’unte saunters onscreen.
The swelling size of the cast and the way that the thematic aimlessly of the characters bleeds into Dear White People’s storytelling, unfortunately, renders season 3 the show’s least enjoyable season yet. Unlike the previous two, which found focus in the Blackface party, Reggie (Marque Richardson)’s near-miss and its racist implications, there’s a lack of cohesion in season three that fails to unify the episodes.
There’s a development late in the seventh episode that attempts to bring the characters together, reintroduce The Order storyline that has been percolating in the background and wrap up Sam, Lionel, and Troy’s personal journeys into something satisfactory, but it never quite comes together. There’s also a startling lack of resolution in that storyline; it simply tapers off into relative obscurity.
Still, there’s something to be said about the joys of Dear White People. The cast remains an embarrassment of riches and the storylines are varied enough that the show is tackling far more than Black culture and racism on a college campus; it’s now about queer identities, low-income campus jobs, failed funding models, gaming the grant system, and the role of storytellers. Plus, it’s difficult to be mad about the reduced screen time for Browning when it simply means more of Ashley Blaine Featherson’s smart Joelle or Jemar Michael’s dumb Al.
Would I have preferred fewer lazy jokes about Queer Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix (the meta “third season” jokes in the early episodes really don’t land)? Sure, but a less great season of Dear White People is still better than a lot of other TV.
Let’s all cross our fingers that Netflix doesn’t pull a Netflix and cancel the series before Simien has a chance to work out the kinks in season 4.
All 10 episodes of Dear White People are now available to stream on Netflix.