(This review, written by our critic Steven Prusakowski and was previously published on our sister site, AwardsRadar. Be sure to check them out for film, TV, and awards coverage, interviews, and reviews).
The deaf community has been unfairly painted with the same brush for far too long. Frustratingly, most portrayals never look beyond their deafness to see the dynamic stories they have to offer. The new Netflix coming-of-age documentary series, Deaf U, abandons that approach, painting a rich, unfiltered portrait of a community that remains misunderstood, and, even more so, under-explored. The mold-breaking series follows a group of students at Gallaudet University based in Washington, D.C., a private university designed to accommodate the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing.
Deaf U gives us a deep dive into deaf culture through the lens of a handful of attractive, very colorful college students whose stories intertwine in the most unexpected of ways. It tackles what it means to be a modern student and how being deaf factors into their lives in ways that many, me included, may be oblivious to. The series seamlessly integrates enlightening qualities of deaf life into every episode. At the same time, their deafness does not define the cast, it is just another hurdle in the complicated life on campus and in love
From the get-go, the series jumps right into college life, introducing an attractive and diverse cast, both in personalities and backgrounds. Rodney, the cocky football player with the f**kboy reputation. Alexa, a flirt whose drive to find the right man seems relentless. Cheyanna, the social media influencer who looks as if she has it all while feeling like an outcast. Renate, a sensitive activist, and poet whose bisexuality has put her at odds with her family. Daequan (DQ) is dealing with grief which may have contributed to some questionable decisions. Dalton, a bartending football player who cannot seem to take relationships to the next level. And, Tessa, the show’s villain, leader of the university’s version of ‘Mean Girls,’ casting judgment on them all.
Anyone walking into this expecting a G-rated world is in for a surprise. The series does not avoid any subject. Instead, it takes them on head-on, in the most candid of ways. It is college, so friendships, romance, and partying are unavoidable. But, like on most campuses, at Deaf U sex is on the menu and lots of it (perhaps too much). While never being too gratuitous, it comes up early and often. Gossip about who slept with who and who wants to sleep with whom dominates conversations.
The viewer is often a fly on the wall, giving us full access, into the bars, football locker rooms, and personal family meetings. A confessional style setting, one-on-one moments where they talk directly to the camera provides for the most revealing disclosures are made. Be prepared, they do not hold back and there are some jaw-droppers.
As wild as it sounds, the series aims higher, transcending beyond just another binge-worthy reality show to be something more. It also serves as a Deaf 101 class for those not familiar with deaf culture, quickly casting aside misconceptions that deafness gives them lesser lives. Gallaudet alumni, model, actor, and deaf advocate, Nyle DiMarco serves as Deaf U‘s executive producer. His inclusion surely contributes to the show’s respectful handling of deaf issues. It balances the entertaining, if rather standard, drama as it emphasizes the differences among the students and how their deafness affects their lives.
The show is at its most intriguing when it pulls back the curtain on the social dynamics of the deaf community. Everything is not all well and perfect as people would believe. There is a strong and fierce clique system among the deaf. The top tier is “The Elites,” a group of who are born into several generations of deafness. Everyone “below” them is classified by how deaf you are and how well you sign using ASL, the strong deaf versus the hearing deaf.
Whether you are deaf from birth, lost hearing after years of being able to hear, have partial hearing loss, or regained the ability through the use of cochlear implants, none of it goes unnoticed by their judgmental eyes. There is even criticism of those who sign too expressively, accused of pandering to the hearing with overly expressive signing. It is particularly heartbreaking to see that even among a group that often feels like outcasts that there is a struggle for some to fit in for not being “deaf enough.” I guess the lack of empathy in today’s world is not exclusive to the hearing.
The challenges crossover into daily life in everything from the inability to snuggle with someone and talk to them at the same time to Siri being useless since it is not able to understand their voices. (Hey Apple, time to invent lip-reading software). For every hurdle, there is an example of how being hearing impaired is unable to prevent enriched lives. Innovate solutions and adapt to a world that rarely accommodates them are abound. To simplify signing their names, which would have to be done letter by letter, they create names based on physical traits (they even have one for Trump based on his infamous locks). These brushstrokes flesh out who deaf people really are. Instead of making them victims, viewers are shown there is much more beyond the disability.
In just eight short episodes (about 20-minutes each) a wide range of subjects are covered including race, women’s rights, sexual assault, drug use, and abortion, to name a few. It is a brisk watch and could benefit from either longer or additional episodes to explore these subjects closer. Halfway through the season the series loses focus on deaf culture shifting to the personal struggles of their relationships. While the drama remains entertaining enough throughout learning more about the deaf lifestyle is not only fascinating it’s important and should have remained in the spotlight.
Deaf U should serve as an eye-opener for many, shedding the long-held misconceptions that are unfairly attached to the whole community. There are passions, talents, personalities, to be embraced. Hopefully, perceptions will change from seeing the hearing impaired as deaf people to people who happen to be deaf.
The full first season of Deaf U is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Deaf U is an eye-opener, shedding long-held misconceptions about the deaf community while entertaining us with the craziness of college life.