Deaf college students shine in Netflix’s new series ‘Deaf U’
Move over, “Tiger King” and “Cheer” — Netflix’s latest binge-worthy dramatic docuseries is “Deaf U.”
Out Friday, the series follows several college students at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, a school for the deaf and the hard of hearing.
“This is the first time ever in Hollywood history that we’re taking a deep dive into deaf culture. We’ve never seen a show like this,” executive producer Nyle DiMarco, 31, told The Post via an interpreter.
DiMarco is a model, actor and deaf activist (and was the first deaf winner of “America’s Next Top Model,” in Season 22). A Gallaudet alum himself, he graduated in 2013 with a degree in mathematics.
“When I heard they were developing a show about Gallaudet, immediately I was interested,” he said. “Hearing people often believe that there’s no such thing as deaf culture — that to be deaf means that you have a disability, and that’s often where it’s left. And of course deafness is a disability, but we have a really incredible culture and a linguistic community. So I’m hoping the show really breaks that misconception.”
“Deaf U” often feels more like a CW show than a docuseries. Guys named Braxton and Dalton roam the halls and there’s even a clique that refers to themselves as “the elite.” Cheryl Blossom on “Riverdale” would fit right in.
Just like in the hearing community, there are different hierarchies. “Big ‘D’ ” Deaf people such as DiMarco grew up in Deaf families — often spanning back several generations, in which deafness was inherited — and grew up using sign language. Other deaf people grow up in households and social spaces where they’re in the minority, and they communicate with hearing people via lip-reading and talking.
“We wanted to spotlight the different experiences you can have,” DiMarco said. “The plan originally was to cast all big ‘D’ Deaf people who are culturally Deaf. And I kind of had to let [the other producers] know that that actually isn’t reflective of the true deaf experience. We had culturally big ‘D’ Deaf kids who had gone to Deaf schools and come from multigenerational Deaf families. And then we had non-culturally deaf kids.”
The eight-episode series follows characters in several circles — some of whom speak on the show, others who sign while viewers get subtitles. The gang includes football jock pals Dalton and Rodney, vlogger influencer Cheyenna, queen bee Tessa, who heads “the elite” group of girls who all grew up together in wealthy Deaf families, Daequan, who’s overcoming a tragic past, and pansexual activist Renate, among others.
“Deaf people talk the most s - - t. That’s what hearing people don’t understand,” Rodney says on-screen. “We can talk s - - t about you to your face, and pretend we’re saying something good about you.”
The docuseries follows students’ romantic trials and tribulations, which often get messy since Gallaudet is a small school with just under 1,000 undergraduates. For instance, self-proclaimed “free spirt” Alexa is in a love quadrangle. “In the deaf community, it’s very common to see your ex everywhere,” she explains to the camera via American Sign Language and subtitles. “Awkward!”
DiMarco said he isn’t worried about anyone coming across as petty or catty, because that’s life. “We show all the different sides [of people] and we have that conversation — the gossip, the misbehaving. The gossip specifically is a part of our community, and it’s often made us stronger.”
There are backstabbing friends, rekindled old relationships and secret pregnancy revelations. Renate is dating her sorority sister, Tayla, but Tayla’s conservative Christian parents don’t approve of same-sex romance.
“It’s really key that we see social dynamics, and we see it through a lovable lens,” said DiMarco. “The hearing audience at home [can] learn about the Deaf experience and culture through the universal experience of relationships and friendships. At the same time, you’re taking away these interesting bits of seeing the things that they go through in everyday life.”
Their deafness is often a matter-of-fact side note on-screen. In one sequence, Dalton flirts with a hearing woman at a nightclub, and Rodney helps act as his interpreter, giving a whole new meaning to “wingman.” In another scene, it’s revealed that when deaf friends go out to a bar together, they’ll change the setup to make the space “deaf friendly,” i.e., shifting furniture around so that everyone can see each other in order to communicate. In between these spotlights on their daily lives, the students address the camera directly whether by speaking aloud or with sign language, to talk more about issues within the community.
For instance, Rodney explains out loud to the audience that some Deaf people talk and some don’t — and some pass judgment on others for their choice.
At one point, the elite clique mocks one of Cheyenna’s YouTube videos, sneering at how she caters to her primarily “hearing” audience by mouthing words too broadly when she signs. When she later finds out and tells a pal, she expresses hurt and frustration that she isn’t “deaf enough” to be accepted by the popular clique.
“The whole point of making this show was really to show what it means to be deaf,” said DiMarco. “And we show that there is no ‘right way’ to be deaf.”.