Before the dramatic revelation that her ex-husband is dead—again—Cupcake Prince swans down the marble staircase in a white fur coat and catches her eldest getting blown at a baby grand piano. “You like cock, Kamal!” she spits, exasperated, when he tries to protest that it’s not what she thinks, and though the moment—from Dear White People’s scalpel-sharp Empire send-up, Prince O’Palities—is uproariously funny, it’s also a turning point for the episode’s two central characters: the instant at which it dawns on Joelle (the ensemble’s unflashy MVP, Ashley Blaine Featherson) that her new beau, Trevor (Shamier Anderson) isn’t the dream date he seemed. “Another piece of propaganda designed to erode the black family,” he sneers when Prince O’Palities cuts to commercial. “Propaganda might be giving it too much credit,” she replies, but soon enough he’s calling Kamal a “fag” and Jo a “Nubian queen.” She sighs, stands, and delivers one of the season’s most unforgettable lines: “Goddamnit! I got got by a hotep?!”
It’s not terribly surprising that Justin Simien’s college-set series, the freshman season of which featured the expert Scandal parody Defamation, should traffic in meta-textual references: As Simien is prone to say, shade is his love language, and TV is ripe for trolling. What differentiates Dear White People from, say, Insecure—with its inspired Underground goof, Due North—or the formidable tag team of The Good Wife and The Good Fight—whose Darkness at Noon is a more trenchant dig at “prestige” dramas than most of us critics have yet mustered—is the sheer density of its TV trolling. In Season Two alone, Prince O’Palities is joined by Season One holdover Dereca: Set Me Straight, a frankly deranged (i.e., brilliant) caricature of Iyanla: Fix My Life, a Love & Hip-Hop spoof, and more gags on cables news blather than you can shake a fist at. Add to that Lena Waithe’s arc as a closeted rapper named P. Ninny and a cameo as black conservative commentator Rikki Carter by Tessa Thompson—who starred in the 2014 film on which the series is based—and Dear White People comes closer to BoJack Horseman for media in-jokes per minute than any other live-action TV series. In fact, Simien tells Paste, he even considered lampooning himself.
“If anyone ever did that to me, I would live for it,” he says of the troll treatment, adding that the series’ knowing devices—Giancarlo Esposito’s narrator, for instance—are an acknowledgment of Dear White People’s own contrivances. “When we first realized it was going to be a different cast, I really toyed with the idea of doing with the original cast a show about a bunch of hyper-articulate black kids at a white college that the kids were watching, starring the original cast of the movie.”
Though that idea never came to fruition, it speaks to Simien’s understanding that he, too, traffics in TV tropes, from the bottle episode—this season’s eighth finds Dear White People radio host Sam White (Logan Browning) and her ex, aspiring documentarian Gabe Mitchell (John Patrick Amedori), interviewing each other in the tight quarters of the recording studio—to the Very Special episode—an abortion-themed half-hour starring Antoinette Robertson’s Coco Conners that counts among the year’s best to date. The key, Simien says, is in the acknowledgment: To come clean about the medium’s manipulations opens up new possibilities, rather than closing them off.
“When I was studying theatre in high school, the Brechtian style of theatre I found really enchanting,” he says. “Things like Pippin, things that really owned what they were and admitted to being stories that you were being told—for whatever reason, that always felt more honest.”
Ultimately, Dear White People’ s self-reflexive streak dovetails with its central subject, which is the uses and abuses of stories in shaping our (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, social, cultural, economic) identities. Watched with the new white residents at the historically black dorm in which Dear White People‘s main characters live, the Love & Hip-Hop copycat, and the various “news” programs on which black guests fight it out as a smug white host looks on, start to read as a form of minstrelsy; in the context of an episode focused on Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), traumatized by last season’s run-in with a white campus security officer, a ludicrous Set Me Straight segment about a mugging underscores the extent to which “self-help” reality shows simply exploit their subjects’ pain. “But it was more than a gun, wasn’t it? It represents something more… devastating,” the scarily hilarious host stage whispers, then screams, at her guest. “A white man’s penis. Penis!” As such, though he claims to pass no judgment on Empire, the affection of Simien’s send-ups also possesses a certain edge: The Larry Sanders Show for black youth culture, toeing the line between celebration and shade.
“These are kids who are bound by a culture they didn’t necessarily create,” Simien says. “You know, it’s Dear White People because they’re always [responding] to whiteness, so to me it’s pretty necessary to examine, well, ‘What are their cultural cues? What is informing their sense of blackness?’ I think about it all the time, the black images that I watch and absorb. The ones that may be more problematic than others. The ones that I absolutely love, but if I were to watch them with my white friends, would I watch them the same way? I’ve kind of always thought about that, and kind of obsessed a little bit over that, and my way to address anything I’m obsessing over is to be shady about it, and to sort of, like, give a wink.”
Shade, Simien confesses, is also a chance to expand the universe of Dear White People without actually expanding the universe. (He calls it his “playground,” whether the point of reference is primetime soaps or kitchen-sink dramas.) It’s a change of pace, too: When he’s working, he prefers The Real Housewives and out-there animated comedies (Rick and Morty, Big Mouth, Adventure Time) to anything too serious.
“When I’m in the throes of creating something or writing something, the last thing I want to do is watch something that is difficult to digest, because I’m still digesting my own work,” Simien says. “I watch things that don’t require me to sit in a solemn silence.”
In much the same way, Dear White People’s TV trolling is anything but solemn—in the aforementioned segment from Set Me Straight, Dereca tells her guest to cry “until I feel tears on my titties”—though within its web of absurd situations and pitch-perfect imitations, there’s the germ of the series’ slyly profound point. It is, following in the tradition of everything from Larry Sanders to The Good Wife, TV as a form of TV criticism, alternately embracing and questioning the medium’s—and its own—uses and abuses of stories. It’s a paean to close reading, to careful analysis, to—as Sam laments in the season premiere—the lost art of “logic, reason, discourse… conversation.” It is, among countless other qualities, an argument that TV’s worth arguing about, and on that point you’ll get no disagreement from me.
Plus, it’s shady as fuck! And Simien has no plans of slowing down.
“Now that people have really responded to it,” he says with a chuckle, “it’s just kind of egging me on.”
Season Two of Dear White People is now streaming on Netflix.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.