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After three seasons of scintillating scandal, heartbreak, and poignant social commentary, the last thing any viewer anticipated was for the fourth installment of Netflix’s “Dear White People” to be performed in the style of ‘90s R&B. While the third season’s escapade into the Ivy League secret-society-scene toed the line between worthwhile mystery and fan-serving fantasy, the fourth season’s new musical direction most definitely sent the series flying off of the well-beaten path. On a positive note, the main conflicts of this season provided writers opportunities for adept and relevant social commentary. However, this season’s inability to balance realistic character development and genuine emotional conflict in between oddly placed homages to NSYNC leaves viewers wondering if “Dear White People” was even worth finishing.
Like many final installments of long-running series, the fourth season of “Dear White People” is told in retrospect as aged versions of the main cast reminisce and critique their younger selves. In this pandemic-wracked future, Sam and Lionel — appearing middle-aged based on a few gray streaks and an overgrown goatee — are placed in temporary quarantine together after Lionel’s book signing. Feeling like sellouts, as they both sacrificed their artistic integrity in pursuit of commercial paychecks, they agree to create a meaningful joint project — the film and narrative retelling of their senior year at Winchester. Unfortunately, this means reckoning with the traumas and conflicts which peppered their final semesters.
Since past seasons have often leaned towards being plot driven, it's no surprise that these conflicts shape out to be the most impactful aspects of the show. The main friction of this season takes place against the backdrop of the Varsity Show — a traditionally racist comedy performance organized by Pastiche. Set in the present academic year, in the wake of the institutional backpedaling following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Troy and Fried Chicanery set out to reclaim the Varsity Show by adapting it into a 90’s R&B musical. Although the new and improved performance intends to highlight and empower the Black community, the physical performance itself is still expected to occur in Beckford Hall — which was named after a slave owner. In response, Black A.F. — a subgroup within the B.S.U — organize to protest the performance and the Black students putting it on.
While many of the previous plot points in “Dear White People” tended to rely on shock value — consider Moses’s predatory reveal or Coco’s pregnancy — this storyline felt surprisingly nuanced. Watching the activist organizations wrestle between various modes of attaining racial progress holds a jarring mirror to the realities of Black university life. For some, like Iesha, progress is only attainable by demolishing the system which kept Black people oppressed — hence why performing in a space dedicated to a holder of enslaved people inherently negates all attempts at Black empowerment. Conversely others, like Troy, find immense value in reclamation — viewing the process of reframing what was once exclusionary into something which celebrates Blackness as activism in itself— regardless of where the show occurs.
Just as the Black community is not monolithic, neither are their definitions of activism or advancement. At a time when there are ongoing conversations within Black organizations about what counts as advancement versus simply institutional pacification, it's refreshing to see these interactions reflected within television. Although the plot was interesting, this season’s confusing character arcs and lack of realistic emotional development led most scenes to fall stale.
After spending three seasons creating characters with distinct personalities, passions, and dynamics, some of this season’s characters grew ultimately unfamiliar. Why would Coco — a notably driven and cutthroat woman who has shown unwavering dedication to her academic success — leave college to appear on reality television? Where was Kelsey — a major character in the third season — for the bulk of season four? It was impossible to introduce multiple new characters — consider the amount of time spent establishing Iesha, the cast of “Big House,” and Troy’s mother — and simultaneously provide original characters with the attention they deserved. In the show’s effort to coalesce flash forwards, retrospect, social commentary, and musical pieces, at times it felt like the characters audiences had come to appreciate simply fell through the cracks.
This issue is only exacerbated by the incessant substitution of passionate musical breaks for genuine conversation in moments of character conflict. When Gabe and Sam argue over the future of their relationship, there is no need for them to sing an auto[-]tuned duet of “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers. Furthermore, when Reggie is unable to attend graduation after the traumatic events of the Varsity Show, the last thing the audience needs is for the Dean to belt out a ballad.
Instead, the writers could have accomplished a much more emotional impact by leaving the door open for more conversation than song. When Troy’s mother admits to him that she never desired children, it is heartbreaking because of the following silence, stares, and discomfort. In moments like these, there is more virtue in the absence of sound than the forced inclusion of it.
Overall, Season Four of “Dear White People” felt like both a nuanced social commentary and an unfortunately ambitious yet unsuccessful attempt to broaden the horizons of the show audiences had previously grown to love. While it wrestles with relevant topics, its commitment to both creative and character experimentation leaves the show feeling stale and slightly unfamiliar.
— Staff writer Anya Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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