When Dear White People first premiered on Netflix in 2017, many viewers were excited to tune into what could have been the first honest depiction of life as a Black student at a predominantly white institution on television. The Netflix original series, an adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 film of the same name, had the potential to speak to a unique Black experience, but over time, something went wrong. Throughout its four seasons, what should have been for us, by us, and about us took several bizarre turns, culminating in a series finale that no one saw coming — or really even asked for.
Both Simien’s film and series focused on the bustling campus of Winchester University, a fictional institution that could easily have been inspired by any number of the elite universities located around the United States. At Winchester, we came upon a college campus on the edge of revolt: a majority white student body with little to no concept of their own privilege and the enclaves of Black students either trying to remain under the radar or planning for world domination. In the first season of the Netflix show, various events contribute to the palpable underlying racial tensions on campus until it all comes to a head, setting the scene for a campus revolution that would in fact be televised.
For anyone who’s ever attended a PWI, public or private, the dynamic at Winchester was all too familiar. We’ve all been the victims of interpersonal and situational microaggressions, felt that nagging sense of dread each day we have to walk into a room and be the only one. And who hasn’t come across the well-meaning but thoughtless and offensive “ally” centering themselves in the fight for equity? The first two seasons of Dear White People even captured the intraracial complications of that experience aptly, with plots focused on the many different types of Black people often who exist on a campus like Winchester's: the overzealous self-proclaimed campus activists, the professional code switchers doing their damndest to fit in, and the students just trying to graduate without any problems. After years of envying the representation that HBCU students found in A Different World, it felt like PWI attendees might have finally found what could have been our mirror.
That’s why many of us couldn’t help but be disappointed as the show developed over the final two seasons. What had started as an in-depth portrayal of Blackness in a majority white space quickly took a turn into something bizarre and much harder to connect with. In the third season of Dear White People, the show transformed into a sleuth mystery of sorts, its main characters doing a deep dive into the truly confusing lore of a secret society hidden in plain sight on campus. And in the recently released series finale, it further devolves into many fans’ worst nightmare: a musical. These narrative turns were also accompanied by dialogue and storylines that didn’t quite hit the way that they were supposed to, a hint that the writer’s room had spent a lot of time on Twitter reading hot takes and hashtags.
The simplest diagnosis of exactly what went wrong with Dear White People as the seasons went on might be that over time, it strayed too far from the original concept of Black students navigating the challenges of attending a school that wasn't made for them. Though a simple premise, that baseline offered up an infinite treasure trove of experiences that the show could have pulled from to keep it timely and perpetually relatable. Viewers were looking to see themselves and their experiences reflected in this show, but as the Netflix project continued, it became more difficult to relate to because of all of the extra things being pumped into the plot, presumably to make it more interesting.
"I just wanted to make a big 'ol musical, and I needed to lean into something that I passionately wanted to do for this final season, and it felt appropriate," the creator explained to Insider of his choice to make season four into a musical. "It felt like the perfect way to distill the metaphor of having to put on a show as a person of colour, of having to sort of tap dance for people, of finding a way to express what's really inside. All these things that were so typical of musicals were also typical of my Black experience at least, and the way I wanted to portray their journey this season. So that's really where it started from and the more we talked about it, the more it made sense."
That reasoning may make perfect sense to Simien, but I'm not sure that sentiment translates to the people watching at home. Where we would have liked more satirical but substantial discourse about the many -isms and phobias plaguing the Black community as a side effect of existing in a white supremacist world — sexism, classism, featurism, colourism, fatphobia, homophobia, xenopobia, and more — we got a hard-to-follow storyline about a secret society (love and light to king Giancarlo Esposito, though!) and a musical inspired by songs from the 1990s. These new approaches were intended to elevate the overall theme of the show and really drive the point home, but instead, they unintentionally took away from the work. Rather than further developing the characters that we had grown to love (or hate, depending on your tastes), the gimmicky turns became a distraction, ultimately detracting from the story that Simien was trying to tell.
Under Simien's orchestration, the series created a clear path for some of the best and brightest in the new class of Hollywood — the cast of the series is undeniably talented and should get booked for all of the things — and for a time, it did provide a moment of representation, allowing many of us to recognize ourselves on the small screen. Dear White People ends with this fourth season, and, though a four-year college matriculation is customary, this curtain call is about two seasons too late because its creative direction actually harmed its plot progression over time. What should have been our story transformed into something unrecognisable, beautiful Black people notwithstanding. That mirror we were seeing ourselves in? Cracked.
Oh well. At least we'll always have the first season.
All four seasons of Dear White People are now available for streaming, only on Netflix.