Romance is an all-encompassing experience. Once you’re in it, there’s nothing else out there. It’s just the two of you against the world, as they say. But generally, you’re not against anything: life, and everything in it, is improved. When you’re in love, the day-to-day is all sunshine and rainbows, leaving little time for concern, let alone cause.
This kind of overwhelming emotional state is why there’s a whole genre dedicated to romance, and why it can be hard for shows to establish a truly great relationship without letting it overwhelm everything else in the series. Viewers relate to the concept of a happy ending with a happy couple, and such an instinctual reaction can prove daunting if the will-they-won’t-they drama plays out as it does in many relationships: indefinitely.
In “Friends,” the gang went through a lot, but we all knew it was going to be OK as long as Ross and Rachel worked it out. The same went for Paul and Jamie on “Mad About You,” Jim and Pam on “The Office,” Lorelai and Luke on “Gilmore Girls,” Derek and Meredith on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and so on and so forth. We felt better knowing they were OK, and that was the great service each show provided, in the end.
Well, we have a new great TV couple to fall for in 2017, but the fate of “Dear White People” isn’t tied to the whether or not Sam (Logan Browning) and Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) will or won’t. In fact, the first season paints a beautiful portrait of young love that grips you deeply, but, in the end, Justin Simien’s brilliant Netflix series offers an inverse perspective on the couple’s destiny: their fate is tied to ours, as a people, rather than the other way around.
Even as a concept, Sam and Gabe was a risky choice for Simien. His series had a cause, and an incalculably important one at that: examining the racial divide in America via the lens of young, black and brown students at a fictional Ivy League school. With as much real-life references to Ferguson and Black Lives Matter as there are pop culture riffs on Drake and Quentin Tarantino, “Dear White People’s” first priority is insightful commentary fueled by an array of characters. A central romantic pairing could submerge the sociological insights that make the series vital.
But what Simien astutely recognized — and what keeps the original series from feeling overly preachy — is that his setting not only allows for romance, but it requires romance. College kids are going to hook up. They’re going to date. They’re going to do a lot more, and they’re going to do a lot of it. To ignore that aspect of these characters would be to ignore their humanity. To acknowledge it makes them feel authentic, and helps every viewer identify with each and every student.
So when we meet Lionel (DeRon Horton) and find out he likes his straight roommate, Troy (Brandon P Bell), from that unrequited crush comes empathy, humor, and connection. When we find out Sam’s best friend Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) is into Reggie (Marque Richardson) — who’s into Sam — it builds a dynamic among the activists that expands beyond protests. More importantly, it doesn’t take away from what they’re saying when they’re not flirting — just like Troy and CoCo’s (Antoinette Robertson) relationship is used to convey a broader point about the various motivations for dating.
We’ve all been there, in one if not all of these situations. And realizing this makes it all the more powerful when these characters are put in situations we haven’t been in, can’t have faced, or both. Namely, the events of the fifth episode — directed by Barry Jenkins, who just won an Oscar for “Moonlight” — are an absolute gut punch because of how well we know everyone in that room. Simien’s decision to frame each episode from an individual perspective, shifting between his core cast of six for each half-hour “chapter,” builds up to a beautiful climax halfway through and then again at the season’s end.
But Reggie’s day ending with him staring down the barrel of a gun was built from hours of watching him mope about Sam. She chose Gabe, he was jealous, and the events spun out from there. That his near-death experience had nothing to do with Sam isn’t entirely true, but that its message — that this injustice can happen to anyone, at any time, for the most insignificant of reasons — was magnified by how connected we were to him for universal reasons.
Think about how his and Sam’s dynamic flipped from that morning to that night: from barely speaking to her knocking on his door, begging to come in, as he sat and cried on the floor. It didn’t matter who was with who, just that the good people stuck together. Our priorities shifted with the characters’, making for a beautifully painful human connection.
A similar turn took place in the season finale, when Sam and Gabe broke free from the protest and town hall meeting to sort out their relationship. While their conversation was strictly about their future as a couple, it was impossible not to see America’s fate reflected in the exchange:
“Nothing about our relationship has been easy,” Gabe says.
“Who said it was supposed to be easy?” Sam replies.
“No one. I just know it doesn’t have to be this hard.”
A white man of privilege speaking to a black woman trying to wake people up; one complains about how hard it is while the other counters that she expected it to be hard. Could there be a more succinct summary of racial perspectives who want the same thing? It would be easier for Gabe to stay out of this — to date a white girl and leave the protesting to Sam and the black student union — just like it’s easier for the unaffected to ignore the problem because they don’t have to live with it on a daily basis. Those who are in it, are in it. They accepted the situation long ago, and they’re ready to fight for what they want.
“The more I think about it, the more I know that this won’t work,” Gabe concludes.
With that attitude, it won’t. He needs to believe, and while Sam cheating on him made that hard, there’s still hope for the couple. “Dear White People” is focused on the fight. The series depicts resistance as vital, and makes it a damn addictive experience in the process. We want Sam and Gabe to work out just like we want things in general to work out. Splitting them up to end the season is fitting, given where we stand now. But will they work it out eventually? We’ll see. We can hope. We can fight.
Love is part of the experience in “Dear White People,” but not the whole experience. However, its masterful implementation gives the whole project incredible resonance and only makes us want more; to see what’s next; to keep going. Now would be a good time to greenlight Season 2, Netflix. We need this story to continue.
“Dear White People” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.