Dear White People arrived four months into Donald Trump's first year as president, but it felt like something from the Obama years. It was, in a way; Netflix's series is an adaptation of the film of the same name from 2014, a time when the occupants of the White House projected the idea that inclusion and tolerance were baseline American values.
At the time, Dear White People was so secure in what it had to say about race and racism that it had the confidence to be downright playful; the title itself trolled easily triggered white people. It parodied Scandal, for crying out loud. Dear White People made the sometimes fraught conversation about race feel like fun. That was then.
In the months after viewers saw Samantha (Logan Browning) and her friends navigating racial tensions on a fictional Ivy League campus, white supremacists and Nazis took to Charlottesville and sparked a riot that left a woman dead. By fall, Trump called football players protesting police brutality — similar to what DWP's Reggie Green (Marque Richardson) experienced when he found himself staring down the barrel of a campus police gun at a party — "sons of bitches." Dear White People was born of a (slightly) more innocent time, before viral videos showed black people being arrested for going to Starbucks or threatened with arrest for playing golf too slowly. Season 2 of Dear White People didn't catch up to the times as much as the times caught up to Dear White People.
This season, Dear White People goes deeper, darker and, in some ways, sadder, confronting racism and its effects far more directly than the satire it practiced before. Framed by an initial mystery — some alt-right a**hole is sending Sam vile tweets — and then an ever-unfolding conspiracy to actively oppress black people on the school's grounds, Dear White People peels away any lingering appeals to the audience's comfort. Its wry tone and moments of comic relief are still intact of course (a good deal of those again coming from Sam's best friend Joelle Ashley Blaine Featherson) but this season, Dear White People seems to know it has work to do: namely, showing institutionalized racism as a generation-old legacy, and how the people who deal with it suffer from psychological trauma, pain and debilitating paranoia.
As Season 2 starts, the school is still reeling from the chaos of last season's explosive finale; Reggie is still shaken from being nearly shot by police at a party; Sam and her (white) boyfriend Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) are estranged because of his role in calling the police to the party in the first place; dean's son and Goody Two-Shoes Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) deals with the fallout of smashing school property during a demonstration. To boot, Armstrong Parker — the dorm designated for Winchester's black students — is now open to all, gentrifying the one place the black students considered their safe space. Naturally, this sends Sam's clan of diverse black thinkers into various states of existential panic, throwing more gas on a fire already burning thanks to her radio show Dear White People. An anonymous soul on Twitter calls her a "half-breed bitch," which emboldens a group of alt-right students to start their own platform, Dear Right People, and investigative reporter Lionel (DeRon Horton) begins to uncover how deep the school's heritage of oppression runs. It's now the season of heated hostility.
It doesn't get overwhelmed by these huge themes, though. Dear White People's structure dedicates an episode to a different character's perspective, drilling down all this heady talk into emotional consequences with specificity, serving up the biggest impact to date. Still traumatized from nearly being shot by cops at a party in front of his friends, Reggie Green (Marque Richardson) becomes bitter, always-tense and disillusioned. Lionel begins to embrace his identity as a gay black man, unlearning shame and self-loathing. Coco (Antoinette Robertson), whose dark skin and eagerness to social climb with white people earned her mistrust from black people, gets to the roots of her feelings of worthlessness. Troy comes to understand the ways his father has groomed him to be a prop to curry favor with wealthy white donors. And while the conspiracy theory at the heart of the season adequately conveys the chilling terror of institutional racism, Dear White People is most compelling when it unpacks the sadness and fear its characters wear on their backs like book bags.
It's not pretty, but it's great TV — especially the epic showdown between Sam and Gabe in Episode 8. Perhaps the most gripping episode of the season, it locks well-intentioned Gabe and a mentally exhausted Sam in the campus radio studio, with him mocking her mixed-girl, privileged righteous anger and her confronting his cluelessness about the danger she faces every day. As it culminates, Dear White People exposes the raw wounds people of color spend their days guarding with varying degrees of success, as well as the layers of misunderstanding and miscommunication that have to die before healing can happen. There's a happy ending though, so, hey, not all hope is lost.
Dear White People concludes with a mysterious figure emerging from the shadows, whose presence begets more questions than any of the answers it may have presented. That almost certainly means a Season 3, during which the show may move closer to the full-on overthrow the narrative feels like it's escalating towards. For now though, the story makes the effects of prejudice more distressing and more urgent, doubling down on its messages with a seriousness that's entirely fitting for its time.
Dear White People begins streaming Friday, May 4 on Netflix.