The new Netflix series “Deaf U” proves that, with the exception of more often using sign language, deaf college students aren’t different from hearing college students.
Nope. Students at Gallaudet University are just as prone to mean cliques, messy personal relationships, getting drunk, using drugs, gossiping and engaging in casual sex as anyone else.
“The point of it all is that deaf people are human, the same as hearing people. We go through the same things in life,” said executive producer Nyle DiMarco, a deaf man who won both “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
In an online interview, DiMarco extolled the higher purposes of “Deaf U.” He’s absolutely right when he says that it shows that the deaf students are very human.
And cast members, who were students at the university for the deaf in Washington, D.C., said they agreed to appear on the series — which starts streaming Friday — so they could tell their stories. Cheyenna Jackson wanted to “break boundaries” and show hearing people “deaf culture, what it looks like, our different backgrounds.”
Clearly, Netflix and “Deaf U” producers made the decision that putting cast members’ sex lives front and center would be the way to draw in viewers. And who can argue with that? There are umpteen “reality” shows that have thrived with that approach.
But once you put that front and center, it makes it harder to get the audience to focus on your more noble purposes. The various versions of “Real Housewives” sometimes show cast members doing charity work, but that’s not the takeaway for viewers. The good deeds are completely overshadowed by the catfights and scandalous behavior.
“Deaf U” cast members deserve a whole lot of credit for being honest. Their forthrightness is always engaging and sometimes astonishing.
“It’s part of our culture,” said Rodney Buford. Renate Rose added that they were “brought up to be honest and we’re very comfortable with each other.”
According to DiMarco, American Sign Language “requires so much body language … it just automatically makes us more expressive. In English, you’re able to kind of play around with words and dance around a topic perhaps, but with ASL it’s all on the table.”
They hope that viewers will learn about the rich culture of deaf people. And there are aspects that are a revelation to the hearing. Did you know there’s a “deaf elite” made up of those whose families have been deaf for generations? And that at least some of them look down on first-generation deaf people and those who aren’t completely deaf?
Daequan Taylor is just one of the cast members who has a story to tell. He survived a very difficult childhood and had almost no exposure to other deaf people, and he “really wanted to show people about me — my struggles, my life, how I had it rough.”
He gets the opportunity to do just that, even though he readily admits, “I’m not the best role model.” But it’s an open question whether that will sink in with viewers, who are bound to be distracted by the focus on his sex life — his search for hookups, not to mention the consequences of past unprotected sex.
There’s a revelation at the end of Episode 1 that will be about the only thing anyone who sees it will be talking about. And it has absolutely nothing to do with deaf culture.
“Deaf U” is a very watchable show that, again, clearly demonstrates that deaf people are just like everybody else. But it comes off more like a guilty pleasure than anything noble.