[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Dear White People Season 3. Read at your own risk!]
Dear White People breaks its mold in Season 3, and it does so by taking itself less seriously. The third outing ditches its former character point-of-view episodes in favor of making each chapter a look at the entire group the show has been following at Winchester University. It not only allowed the show to spend more time with established fan favorites, but to also get to know new characters and formally minor players.
Most importantly, though, the new format allowed the Netflix show to tackle topics that require a 360 degree perspective. Blair Underwood joins the third season as a computer science professor, Moses Brown, who becomes Reggie's (Marque Richardson) new mentor. He's also a beacon of light for the burned out black population on campus looking for a reason to continue fighting the good fight. Of course, right as Reggie is about to pave his way to a bright future by becoming the lead programmer on Moses' app, allegations come out that Moses pressured a student — Muffy (Caitlin Carver) — into getting physical with him.
The latter episodes take a look at what happens when heroes are knocked off pedestals and what happens to the people who put them there. At the same time, it's done in a season with more humor and self-awareness than ever before. TV Guide spoke to Dear White People executive producer and co-showrunner Justin Simien about tackling that subject and balancing the show's more relaxed tone.
The season starts off with a lot of meta jokes about being the third season of a Netflix show, which are hilarious. What were you guys trying to say with that?
Justin Simien: I think we're in a new era of TV. [It] used to be pretty common, conventional wisdom that when you do a television show, as a writer you never ever quite give your characters what they want or what they need, otherwise the show will be over. The Jack and Diane of it all, the Cheers of it all. The minute they finally get together, everyone's kinda bored... That conventional wisdom, it just doesn't quite work in the Netflix era the way I think people think it does. I binge shows all at once. I watch the whole season together. And if I feel like I'm watching the same thing I just saw from last season, I get a little bored.
I also wanted to prepare people subconsciously for the fact that we're breaking the format a little bit this season. The way we're telling the story is just a little bit different, and that's totally OK. Just let people know it's OK that we are going to be a little bit different this time because we don't want to give you the same thing again. I love what we did last season, but I don't want to repeat it. That's still a shocking thing, I think, in TV — to have characters that do actually get what they want and then want something else, or change and grow in ways that nobody expected, maybe, but it's real. That is what happens in these experiences, and that's really what that was about.
How did opening the season up and having more of a group dynamic rather than focusing on individual character chapters allow you to tackle the story in a different way?
Simien: It allowed us to be a little bit more nimble. There are fans of all of these characters now. Our universe is expansive in a very Simpsons kind of way. In a world where you have 10 episodes and you give each whole episode to one character's point of view, we're never going to get the Krusty the Clown episode or the Sideshow Bob. You're not going to get all those fun moments that you love when you love many characters in a show. I made that decision instinctively feeling I want to give us more Lionel and I want to give us more Sam and I want to give us more Coco and Troy, but I also want to give us more Brooke and more [Kelsey] and more Al, and more all these other characters.
You guys also decided to take on #MeToo in this season. What were your discussions about the points you wanted to make or at least shed light on that you hadn't seen in this conversation so far in the cultural zeitgeist?
Simien: We don't really go outside-in like that. We don't go, "OK, here's an issue. Let's figure out how to talk about it." That's not how we work. We always start with the characters and where they are. Where the characters are tends to have something to do with where we are as people, the folks writing the show, myself, the cast, et cetera. There was this feeling among all of us that we were exhausted because so many of our heroes were eviscerated. So many of the people who made us feel like we could hold our heads up high and walk through these spaces and be black and be proud. Well, turns out there are sexual predators among them and there are allies who are actually antagonists among them. We were all processing a version of that and what do you do in a world where you want to protect black men because they need that protection from society at large? Black men or black women, you want to protect them. You want to look up to your heroes... You want to worship your heroes, but you can't when you find out these problematic aspects of them.
So what do we do now? Now that our leader is gone or the person who was our inspiration turns out they did some really dirty things in private, in the shadows? What do you do now? That's really where it all came from. And because we were all talking about that stuff and certainly like, women in the room brought a perspective to it that made it very clear to me to not go there. Specifically, I'm talking when your hero turns out to be a sexual predator, specifically. But to not go there would be to not be honest about what it was we were trying to talk about. And so we leaned into it. I think the fact that there is a need [for] discussion happening as a society frankly is one that the show predicts in Season 1, in a lot of ways. We just happened to be of that moment, too.
After everything Reggie has been through over the course of the series, what made him the right person to put at the center of that debate alongside Muffy?
Simien: I think in a lot of ways Reggie is me. He's all of us, but specifically, he is going through dysthymia, which is a low-grade depression, but he doesn't realize it. He's in a relationship and he's happy and things are going well, but there's still a hole in there. The reason he's able to get out of bed in the morning and deal with it is because of this hero who comes into his life and who is all of these wonderful, wonderful things to him, but there's also something else there that if Reggie sees it then he loses his hero and he loses his reason to get out of bed in the morning. That's me journaling a little bit through that character and working out some stuff. That's really what that was about. It made sense to me that Reggie would be the one who needed the hero the most, and because of that had to grow up when his hero turns out to not be exactly who he purports himself to be.
Was that storyline inspiration for you using The Handmaid's Tale as the show within a show this season or did that just happen to be a happy parallel?
Simien: That just happens to be. I shade what I love. Everything that we do in the show is something that we are also equally obsessed with... I think, especially among black folks but in culture in general because everyone is so defensive, and everyone is so offensive as well and comes for you for everything, I wanted to encourage us to love things and examine them at the same time. Recognize that there's some problematic aspects of this thing maybe, but I love it. I still love it. That was one of those things that came up in the room as something that we all really loved, but there were some aspects of it that weren't really bubbling up to the cultural conversation. Probably because we love it so much and we don't want to make it come off like we're trying to attack it.
I think that's what I'm always trying to find with the show is space to talk about things that we feel like we have to repress in every day conversation, in every day society. I thought it was so ironic that the show that was so about feminism and all this kind of stuff also features a bit of a male gaze and a lot of really hot and sexy traditional television moments that we love. But let's think about it, though. Let's discuss it. That's why I wanted Sam to love something that was problematic, too, because Sam is one of those characters where everywhere she goes she's expected to have the right answer, to be completely pulled together, to have an airtight argument. But can we live? Can we live, too? That's why it was Sam that loved that show so much.
I figured after Season 2 that the Order of X would be a much larger part of Season 3. Can you talk about how much of a long game you're planning that to be? There are still a lot of questions about that group and how they fit into this story.
Simien: Some stuff you don't really have total control over. I think we wanted to probably give you more, but we also really enjoy what happens when you're still learnings about the Order of X. I think one of the really important things to me was to give the characters a more personal connection to their activism. I think a lot of times we get into activism from a very heady place. ... We want people to get something they don't get, but as we grow up and become who we are, sometimes it can become a little performance. It can become performative and you need to take a step back and reconnect with what inside of you actually inspires you to be a part of these movements in the first place. So in order to do that storyline, we couldn't have them go all the way and expose everything that we want to do with the Order of X right away because we would be denying the character's growth and character journeys and moments that I think resonate with the audience more than say, plot. But as always, and if you really pay attention to the show, we're always planting seeds. Even when you don't realize that we're setting you up for what's coming next, we always are thinking about it. The Order of X is one of those things that it felt like it needed some runway to become all the things we want it to be.
Making the assumption that you do get a Season 4, what are you hoping to tackle in that next season or have you not gotten there yet?
Simien: I have ideas. I'm pretty clear on what I think the story is, but the way the public digests the season always inspires a new idea. So I have a plan, but I also have the sense to wait a little bit and to listen to what it is people are picking up on. We don't really give you a sandwich. Every episode is like a buffet. There's so many things you can talk about. There's so many characters you can identify with or hate or love. There's so much in every single episode. I kinda do have to wait and see what it is that people are picking up on.
Is there anything specific you want people to take away from this season?
Simen: Many things. There are so many things. I think the idea that we can examine the things that we love and that we can hold multiple ideas about people and things and experiences that we've had. I want that because I think Twitter in particular and Instagram and social media, it really rewards black and white thinking. It really rewards arithmetic but actually it's calculus that is needed right now. It's deep thinking that is needed right now. We need to be able to think about the things that are happening to us and into our world in many different colors.
Dear White People Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.