Netflix will continue it banger year of well-produced docuseries this week with Deaf U, an eight-episode inside look at the lives of students at Gallaudet University, the only higher education institution in the world where all services and instruction are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. The series primarily follows six Gallaudet attendees at varying points in their college journeys and explores their fears about leaving the university and whether they want to remain in exclusive Deaf-only communities or join the hearing world, as well as their social anxieties about the campus’ tight-knit but gossipy culture, relationship woes, and the trials and tribulations of growing up.
In a similar vein to Netflix’s other 2020 breakout docuseries Cheer and Love on the Spectrum, Deaf U becomes an immediately engaging series thanks to the excellent casting. Cheyenna, Daequan, Alexa, Renate, Rodney, and Dalton each have very unique personalities and are looking for something different as they progress through Gallaudet, which makes it even more fascinating when you realize just how much of their lives intersect in unexpected ways.
It’s also a look into a community — and the complicated dynamics within it — that isn’t often portrayed anywhere else. Football players Rodney and Dalton have bonded over sports, being Black men on campus, and having partial hearing, something that’s frowned upon by the Gallaudet elite — a group of students who are fourth or fifth generation Deaf and grew up speaking American Sign Language. Alexa is part of that clique, but struggles with their judgmental behavior towards Cheyenna, a new friend and a YouTube influencer who is ostracized because she mouths words when she signs and doesn’t make her videos specifically for the Deaf community. At least Cheyenna has Renate, a close friend and confidant who is still working through issues at home because her family won’t accept that she is bisexual and dating a woman. They all hang out or used to hang out, and their current or past connections emerge at varying times, emphasizing how small the social bubble they live in truly is. When you have that overlap, it’s impossible to keep things from getting complicated. Needless to say, drama ensues.
Alexa Paulay-Simmons, Cheyanna Clearbrooke, and Daequan Taylor, Deaf U
However, it’s immediately clear when you watch the series that Deaf U doesn’t put any pressure on its subjects to be model citizens of the Deaf community as it intricately weaves the stories of these six individuals together. Rodney’s opening confessional is a blunt, “I’m an asshole,” and it’s a startling breath of honesty in a genre of television that often feels overly produced. You later learn that Rodney’s f—boy persona is a mask for his fear of getting hurt, but the show doesn’t try and protect him from the aftermath of his philandering ways as he tries to figure himself out. Rodney’s initial confessional is also a clear indicator that while this show is about Deaf people, it’s not solely about being deaf. Of course Deaf U does a lot of educating about the politics and nuances of the Deaf world so that viewers not well-acquainted with the culture won’t be confused, and it allows the six subjects and their friends to be the messy, sometimes contradictory, 20-somethings that they are and thus ensures their relatability to a larger audience. Even if you don’t know a single sign in ASL, you know what it means to feel like you don’t fit in or the paralyzing fear of having to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life, and thus you find yourself identifying with at least one of the Deaf U students, if not finding a piece of yourself in each of them.
Credit must be given to executive producer and multi-hyphenate actor and activist Nyle DiMarco, who can also list America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars season wins on his resume. DiMarco was obviously paying attention to how stories were crafted on those legacy reality shows because Deaf U expertly balances unscripted hallmarks (unexpected hook-ups, betrayals, and earth-shattering confessionals) with heart. The show is edited in a way that leaves you wanting more at the end of its 25-minute episodes, but never making you feel like you’re not getting a corrupted version of the story. The show brings out the natural drama between this diverse group of students without pulling obvious tricks to manufacture it and it’s so easy to remember how every hiccup felt like the end of the world when stuck in a tight knit bubble like Gallaudet.
The hook of Deaf U is obviously the inside look at how a community has created a rich and dynamic culture with an identity that the outside world has often only considered a disability, and the show delivers on that front. The reason to stay though is that the true value of the show is in getting to know these students as the beautiful work-in-progresses that they are and get invested in who they are aiming to become.
Deaf U premieres Friday, Oct. 9 on Netflix.