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Netflix's 'Deaf U' Shows The Deaf Experience Through The Eyes Of Students

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing here in Washington, D.C., gets the reality TV treatment in a new Netflix show called "Deaf U." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show could have just been a bunch of stereotype tropes of reality TV, but it's not.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Like a lot of college-age males, Daequan Taylor has a tough time talking about his feelings. But then in the first episode of Netflix's "Deaf U," he lets an emotional detail drop - his family forgot to tell him he was hard of hearing as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAF U")

DAEQUAN TAYLOR: One day I went home and I told my mom - I'm like, yo, Mom, I think I can't hear out of my left ear. And then she explained the whole story about - oh, yeah, you were really, really sick, age 6, had a seizure, so you can't hear clear. I'm like, you telling me this now?

DEGGANS: Daequan's troubled childhood becomes a major storyline in "Deaf U," a docuseries following a group of students at Gallaudet University, a prestigious private school for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. No officials, coaches or teachers explain this school's unique world to viewers. Instead, we learn by watching the students. And what they often talk about, especially in the first episode, is sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAF U")

RODNEY BURFORD: Me? I'm going to say something nasty right off the bat.

DEGGANS: That's Rodney Burford. Known around Gallaudet as a lady's man - he uses a term for that I can't repeat on broadcast radio - Rodney says his, uh, courtship technique sometimes involves just asking a female companion for sex right away.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAF U")

BURFORD: Is that necessary? No, but it works sometimes.

DEGGANS: "Deaf U," a series whose rebelliousness is embodied in the wordplay of its title, shines most when it shows how typical challenges college students face are amplified by the unique contours of Deaf culture. A central conflict here - what is appropriate for a member of the Deaf community, and what's an unhealthy catering to hearing people? Cheyenna Clearbrook, for example, is a pretty blue-eyed blonde with more than 24,000 followers on Instagram, the kind of girl who might rule the popular clique at many schools. She posts videos like this one, trying to see if Apple's virtual assistant, Siri, can recognize her voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAF U")

CHEYENNA CLEARBROOK: Where art thou, Juliet?

SIRI: OK. Here's Apple Books.

DEGGANS: She actually said, Where art thou, Juliet? But Cheyenna gets pushback from girls described as the Deaf elite, from families who've been deaf for generations, whose first language is American Sign Language. They question whether her videos cater too much to those who can hear. When Cheyenna learns of this, she asks one of them point blank - am I not Deaf enough? - a comment she recently expressed regret for using on her Instagram account, calling it weaponizing and a trope harmful towards the Deaf community.

Daequan describes how some people at Gallaudet criticize him for choosing to speak and not use sign language all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAF U")

TAYLOR: Deaf culture people really hate me because I don't sign all the time. You're telling me to come in, learn a full language and just sign and I've been using my voice the past 20 to 19 years? That's impossible.

DEGGANS: "Deaf U" deftly explores these gossipy coming-of-age challenges - how to be true to yourself without hurting others, how to bring something new into your life, like hearing aids or cochlear implants, without being judged by those who see such changes as turning away from your identity as a Deaf person. As a critic, I'm often cynical about docuseries which can bend and break the truth to build storylines around real-life people reduced to simplistic TV characters. But if the moments shown in "Deaf U" are true, it's a fascinating look at a community rarely seen with such depth and humanity on television.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "SEVEN CROWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.