‘Dear White People’ Review: Season 3 Shifts Course in a Thoughtful Junior Year

“Dear White People” is anything but apathetic. The provocative, oft-misunderstood title speaks to a sense of urgency all by itself, and digging into the episodes reveals vivid arguments and imagery, ambitious story arcs and directorial choices, not to mention commanding performances from a talented ensemble. All of these assets remain in the new “Dear White People” Season 3 (or Volume Three, if we go by the official title cards), but its inherent desire for progress brings along a mixed bag of experiments and reversals, which when viewed in total present a more thoughtful but less potent set of episodes.

Signs of change surface pretty quick, as series lead and lead instigator Sam White (Logan Browning) starts the new school year adrift and in search of purpose. When a filmmaker creates a main character who’s also a filmmaker, and proceeds to write about how lost they are in their work, it’s easy to read as meta signaling — that the real-life artist is going through similar struggles, and thus dragging their work along with them. That’s not entirely fair here, but sending an actress of Browning’s talents on an aimless arc about sorting through aimless ambitions is, well, not all that enriching. She shouldn’t be doing more with less, but more with more.

While the show remains purposeful, directionless narratives snag more than just Sam. Season 3 opens with most of Winchester University’s formerly impassioned advocates slacking on the job. Few are attending to Armstrong-Parker’s house meetings, finding themselves more focused on individual ambitions than collective advocacy efforts. As one character makes clear in a bit of self-referential dialogue, this marks a conscious choice by creator, writer, and director Justin Simien to flip predetermined character traits: those who were once outspoken crusaders are now enjoying a bit of me time, for better and worse.

Lionel (DeRon Horton) has abandoned his journalistic passions to write autobiographical “fiction” under a ghost name, chronicling his (rather tame) sexual adventures and passing out printed recaps via his own underground zine. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is still trying to break in as a humorist, so he’s writing for the (very white) campus comedy magazine, Pastiche, and Coco (Antoinette Robertson) is so focused on world domination she’s not taking care of herself — too much coffee, not enough sleep, and weird visions brought on when anything goes off-book.

“Dear White People”

Lara Solanki/Netflix

Most of these arcs aren’t particularly powerful, but the hallucinations illustrate just one more way in which Simien wants to tell his story. There are plenty of new characters — played by guest stars Blair Underwood, Laverne Cox, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Flavor Flav — but the most telling changes are structural. Giancarlo Esposito, who narrated the first two seasons before popping up in the Season 2 finale’s last-second twist, immediately instructs Sam and Lionel to “kill the narrator,” which means more within the story later on, but makes an immediate impact on the series’ rollout — without Esposito shaping each episode around one character’s perspective, Simien has to find new ways to frame each half-hour.

This leads to more overlapping plot lines for the strong ensemble, but it also provides a looseness to the season that’s matched by its characters’ contemplative attitudes. Some people stand out — like Reggie, played by Marque Richardson, who gets two juicy storylines about coping with trauma while building a new relationship and being the protege to a possibly problematic professor — while others, like Sam, don’t quite get enough time to shine.

In the end, Season 3 feels like its taking a step back to look at the broader picture instead of charging ahead at each enraging individual issue. There are still smart jabs at current pop culture — like the effective if truncated “Handmaid’s Tale” show-within-a-show, “The Nursemaid Diaries” (while meta Netflix references prove nagging). Early on, Simien moves in front of the camera to play Jerry Skyler, a Tyler Perry stand-in whose “Mista Griggins” movies have made millions but who’s seen as a pariah by artistic black filmmakers like Sam. She sees his magical black butler character as an amalgamation of demeaning stereotypes that amp up the worst perceptions of black culture for cheap laughs… but when she sees him in class, as a sharply dressed, bullshit-free, and keenly perceptive visiting professor, the man in front of her doesn’t fit the portrait of a dumbass she’s assigned him.

Marque Richardson and Ashley Blaine Featherson in “Dear White People”

Lara Solanki/Netflix

While Season 3 never really comes full circle on Skyler, the final episodes enter a similarly open debate over disgraced black heroes like Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, without using such direct onscreen parallels. No one is defending either disgraced icon specifically, rather Simien examines why certain members of the black community are more hesitant to dismiss their idols over allegations (proven or not).

It’s here where the less intense, more pensive pacing suits “Dear White People” well. Rather than steam full-force ahead, telling a group of people already on edge how to think, the arcs invite a natural discussion between two initially opposed characters, thus providing a deeper look at the issue at hand. This has always been a strength of the series, but if you were overwhelmed by the Sorkin-esque theatrical debate between Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) and Sam last season, then you should enjoy Season 3’s more nuanced couple’s showdown.

“Dear White People” Season 3 builds very well on its core goodness — if you enjoyed past seasons, you’ll continue to enjoy this one. The developing relationships are surprising and honest; the dialogue is sharp; the direction is inventive. The gripes to be had with the new episodes are only in comparison to what’s come before, which are near-perfect seasons of TV. Change is good, especially when grounded in the quest for fresh perspectives, and Season 3 is more than an “A-for-effort” situation, even if it’s not quite A-grade overall.

Grade: B+

“Dear White People” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.

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