Common wisdom suggests that rebooting cult classic movies into TV shows is a terrible idea, dreamt up by unoriginal executives grasping for easy content with name value. But while television history is littered with high-profile failures of such ill-advised attempts, just occasionally, shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Friday Night Lights, or Fargo, totally upend expectations. Sometimes, the long-form medium allows a showrunner to evolve an interesting yet nascent premise into something so special, that it far surpasses it’s source film.
Dear White People had already proven itself to be among that elite ilk with it’s outstanding freshman season. While Justin Simien’s exploration of American race relations through the prism of an Ivy League campus was inherently compelling as an 108-minute movie, his improved TV show version is able to go much deeper into it’s themes, while managing to craft rich individual portraits of a larger ensemble. By going beyond the perspective of it’s firebrand protagonist Samantha White, Dear White People the series becomes vastly more layered.
That being said, Logan Browning’s incredible performance as Samantha White remains the show’s centerpiece. Though still wonderfully articulate and willfully determined, Samantha finds herself challenged intellectually and emotionally like never before this season. Brilliantly, Dear White People gives voice to the criticisms of season one by presenting them as hurdles for Samantha. From vicious alt-right trolls to a well-meaning ex-boyfriend, she is forced to confront both straw man attacks and valid opposing viewpoints that can’t be simply countered with radio activism.
Enraged and vulnerable, Samantha’s ability to reconcile with her own shortcomings, deal with a personal tragedy, and still come out ahead, becomes the overwhelming crux of her remarkable character arc this season. It’s an unfair mountain to climb, but hey, that’s nothing new for a woman of colour. The sea change in Trump-era political discourse is a minefield for even someone as smart as Samantha to navigate – but intriguingly, the show’s most persuasive antagonists, whether liberal satirists or radical conservatives, aren’t presented as buffoons.
Case in point, Tessa Thompson (an inspired bit of meta casting), guest stars as Rikki Carter in season two, a formidable Republican pundit who surprisingly decimates Samantha in a verbal duel. In the season’s best episode, a documentary interview with former lover Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) turns into a riveting two-person theatrical play, where a thought-provoking debate about issues like cultural division and appropriation, becomes intertwined with resentment and anger over each other’s wrongdoings during their break-up last season.
That kind of deft ability to ground urgent social exploration in emotional consequence, relationship turmoil and contextual hilarity is present throughout the season’s consistently engaging POV episode showcases on the rest of Dear White People’s significant players. We follow Reggie (Marque Richardson) as he comes to terms with his PTSD after being held at gunpoint by campus police. Troy’s (Brandon P. Bell) hallucinatory journey of self-discovery after liberating himself from his father’s legacy is probably the season’s funniest respite.
Meanwhile, Lionel’s (DeRon Horton) search for a new journalistic outlet and his anxiety over his first boyfriend after coming out is probably the season’s biggest subplot. But it’s most heartbreaking profile belongs to Coco (Antoinette Robertson), who’s unexpected pregnancy forces her to choose between her lofty career ambitions and her dream of raising a daughter. These nuanced stories of trauma, ennui, gay coming-of-age and abortion are just some of the very many compelling arcs that service Dear White People’s wonderful 20-plus ensemble.
Season two’s abundance of poignant drama and offbeat comedy come from a wide variety of overlooked places. But most surprisingly, the show’s narrator (Giancarlo Esposito, aka Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring) becomes a character unto himself as he frames the season’s ongoings in the historical context of Winchester University’s hidden past and influential secret societies. It’s an overarching Veronica Mars-esque mystery that builds to a climatic reveal that isn’t just a game-changer – it opens a bounty of fresh narrative possibilities for season three.
Dear White People has leveled up from greatness in season one to genius with this superior sophomore volume, and Justin Simien together with his ridiculously talented team of writers, directors and actors deserve a world of credit (it’s Emmy snubs are a travesty). It’s willingness to meaningfully tackle big ideas – ranging from free speech to hoteps to epigenetic inheritance – through intimate character study, emotional honesty and surprising humour is extraordinary. This is a terrific season that elevates an already excellent show into one of the best things TV.