One of the more intriguing elements of Justin Simien’s Netflix satire Dear White People has been its exploration of each character’s wavering relationships with morality. For three seasons, viewers have watched Sam White (Logan Browning) negotiate her advocacy with her identity, her filmmaking ambitions, and her rocky relationship with Gabe (John Patrick Amedori). With graduation approaching and a new class arriving at Winchester University, there appears to be a golden opportunity for the young auteur to reexamine her worldview in the face of younger, more radical freedom fighters. Can Sam still be considered a righteous firebrand if she continues to work within the system? Without her woke identity, who is she, really?
Unfortunately, there isn’t really much time to dive into such matters between shaky renditions of TLC and Mary Mary songs—an inherent risk that comes with turning a whole season into a ’90s-inspired musical. While the one-off musical episode has a lengthy history in TV, distilling an entire season into ironic—or even just cohesive— musical theater requires a very clear vision. It isn’t easy, and one can’t be blamed for seizing a chance to celebrate culture in a dynamic way. But while DWP’s song-heavy final season reveals the lesser known talents of a few key players, the final product doesn’t reflect a solid reason for the show’s odd turn outside of generic nostalgia. Instead, the music mostly dulls the story’s sharper moments, rendering the whole effort much weaker than a four-season production should be.
For volume four, viewers aren’t immediately transported back to campus. Instead, they are brought to the future where Lionel (DeRon Horton) is a best-selling author and Sam is a commercial director hoping to hit her career-solidifying stride. Having fallen out of contact since their university days, the pair reunite to discuss Lionel’s book series, which we learn is the basis for the show. We also learn that Lionel remained so traumatized by his senior year that he never wrote the fourth installment. Desperate for a creative win, Sam convinces Lionel to pursue the long-awaited finale, which she will then adapt into a TV show.
We experience their final year through the perspectives of their old classmates, whom they interview one by one. At the heart of the school year is the Varsity Show, an annual Winchester tradition that, for the first time, the Armstrong-Parker House will produce. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) proposes that they turn the show into a ’90s musical featuring R&B hits, aiming to imbue the typically all-white production with elements of Black culture.
In a normal season, this would likely be the least interesting development in a bevy of more grounded storylines. Here, the music spills well outside of the boundaries of a B-story plot and permeates the lives of each character, often popping up in truly awkward ways. Devoid of cohesiveness, this musical approach fails to enhance the story in a satisfying way. In most cases, the songs from the cast are forced (because there’s never a real need for a tortured, ballad-style cover of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”) or downright ill-advised (perhaps a discussion about violence against sex workers is not the time to devolve into any version of Johnny Gill’s “Rub You The Right Way”).
More than anything, the music detracts from some really fantastic performances from a seasoned cast. This is especially the case for Marque Richardson and Ashley Blaine Featherson, who continue to ground Reggie and Joelle’s relationship in a relatable sweetness that remains swoon-worthy. Of course, that doesn’t mean their union is perfect. Right up to the end, the show chooses to focus so acutely on Reggie’s needs that, at times, it’s difficult to parse what Joelle really gets from her time with Reggie beyond the occasional chill hang and a few instances of moral support. It’s not exactly a symptom of an ill-conceived couple—honestly, Richardson and Featherson are so charming together that the series could have benefitted from showing more of them. More than anything, it’s the result of a series that fails to explore Joelle at her emotional core, often relegating her to the role of supportive stand-in. Of DWP’s shortcomings, failing to really recognize Joelle beyond her connection to others will likely live on as its greatest.
The introduction of Iesha Vital (Joi Liaye), a freshman armed with all of the conviction and unwavering politics that once rendered Sam a star, exposes another missed opportunity for the writers to explore a thoroughly interesting dynamic between two explosive figureheads. The occasional moments when the two fated counterparts square off are rife with a very natural tension that does well to emphasize Sam’s development. Iesha is direct, unmoving, and self-assured to the point of occasional cockiness. She’s a reflection of a much younger, less experienced version of Sam, and their conflict is easily one of the most genuinely compelling elements of the season. Liaye is also careful to play Iesha with enough dimension to keep her from being too much of a caricature, taking breaks from her character’s take-no-prisoners persona to offer moments of sheer vulnerability that remind us that Iesha is still very much a kid. In a season where every character is robbed of precious time, Liaye makes the most of the little she has.
Despite a very frustrating season, DWP offers moments that briefly remind the viewer of its original appeal. Browning, Antoinette Robinson, and Jemar Michael still manage to exercise stellar comedic timing while fleshing the individual journeys of Sam, Coco, and Al. Aesthetically, the cinematography continues to inspire moments of awe, especially as the tone shifts from the familiar earthy palettes to the brighter shimmer of the future. And this season, costuming gets its moment in the sun with creations that thoughtfully consider the progression of fashion without becoming too cliche. The creatives behind the show’s visuals are standouts until the show’s final bow. But aside from a few watchable moments, DWP ends on a note that isn’t quite sour, but is held for far too long.