When Tarell Alvin McCraney’s David Makes Man debuted on OWN in the summer of 2019, it was a revelation. At once a tense meditation on the trauma inherent to being a Black teen boy in 21st-century America and a lyrical, innovative coming-of-age fantasy full of the joy and discovery of youth, the series—piloted by the devastatingly layered performance of its extraordinary young lead, Akili McDowell—thrived in defying expectations. When its short 10-episode season brought the most important emotional arcs of the series satisfyingly back around to where they started, I cheered. When I realized that, living as it did on OWN’s proprietary streaming app, the series would be next to impossible to convince anyone to seek it out, I despaired.
But then the series was renewed for a second season, and then it won a 2020 Peabody Award, and then, when HBO Max launched, it picked up the series’ streaming rights so fast that I’m not convinced the app itself was even live yet on most devices.
The time to cheer was back.
That said, as exciting as it was to know there would be more David Makes Man in our collective future, it was also a bit confounding. As a portrait of one particularly devastating year in one particular young man’s life, the first season of the series was nearly perfect. The pilot and the finale echoed one another; the trauma David spent the rest of the season working hard not to have to acknowledge finally broke through in a way that seemed to promise open skies ahead. What could a second season of David’s story even do?
Jump, it turns out—15 years into the future, where David (played as an adult by Kwame Patterson) is a successful Miami businessman with a classy downtown apartment, a distant-but-satisfying friends-with-benefits arrangement with a yoga-loving architect (Brittany S. Hall) who lives in his building, and a deeply tense relationship with both his little brother (Arlen Escarpeta), who’s since become a smart-mouthed police officer, and his now-sober mom (Alana Arenas), who’s since become a foster parent for queer youth in one of Miami’s leafier suburbs. How David got to this point is an open question—especially given how much trauma he’s still clearly carrying around—but what he’s aiming to do now that he’s there is clear: He wants to go back to the very place that left him with all that trauma. He wants to rebuild the Ville.
Given how much of David’s life since we last saw him is still a mystery to us as the season starts, it’s uncertain if this vision is informed more by wanting to support the people he left behind at the Ville when he went off to Hurston Prep, or by wanting to tear down a place that’s haunted him since Sky died. We know David is a good and caring person, of course, but what he’s describing (and how he’s going about accomplishing it) feels on the verge of shady. This, though, seems to be the thrust of the new season—if David was closed off to the world when we met him as a 14-year-old, he’s a locked vault as an adult. And it is wearing on him.
In what’s clearly an effort to underscore just how little David has been able to heal in the 15 or so years that have elapsed since the end of the first season, the episode that opens Season 2 (“Barrel of Oranges”) parallels the pilot (“David’s Sky”) with an almost eerie precision. In both outings, we meet David as he’s waking up from a fitful, sweat-soaked sleep. We see him get up while it’s still dark, strip the sodden sheets from the bed, and try to sneak out behind his building’s watchful guard to start his day. When he inevitably fails, we see him painfully try to shrug off getting caught. Once the sun is up and his morning obligations are through, we see him don his shirt and tie, shrug on his backpack, and try to shrink himself into the crowd, as an officer associated with Miami-Dade public transit attempts to goad him into some kind of reaction. Once he finally gets where he’s going, we see him take a deep breath, plaster on a bracing I belong here grin, and head into a majority-white space awaiting his big presentation. Stay ready, you won’t have to GET ready. In “David’s Sky,” it’s the ghost of David’s murdered father figure, Sky (Isaiah Johnson), giving him that advice. In “Barrel of Oranges,” it’s David himself, breaking the fourth wall with a tight, indecipherable smile to pass it on to the audience.
If 14-year-old David’s ritualized code-switching/mask-wearing was a product of trauma—a kind of armor protecting his soul from a world that meant it harm—then 30-year-old David’s inability to outgrow it is a sign that his trauma has just compounded. For anyone who felt like the narrative catharsis of the Season 1 finale signaled a parallel breakthrough for David as a character, this will feel like a low blow. McDowell’s teenaged David went through hell to “make man,” saving his friend, saving his mom, saving his brother, saving the Ville (even saving his enemies!) all to shake off the ghost of the man who was supposed to have saved him. Adult David, one might have hoped, would just get to live. But of course, trauma doesn’t follow a neat path, and hope’s not a magic word. And as flashback episodes to teenage David’s time at Hurston Prep later show, without a support system equipped to take his trauma seriously, nevermind his inherent value as a human being, David’s Season 1 breakthrough never really had a chance to truly take root.
Or at least, I think that’s what Season 2 is going for. With only three episodes provided for review, it’s impossible to say for sure—not least because the McCraney’s storytelling, which was already inclined towards languidity in Season 1, is doubly so this time around, divided as the narrative is between David’s present (as Patterson) and his past (as McDowell). Moreover, there’s the fact that the series’ signature special effects—the dreamy, magical realist touches that brought to life David and Seren’s (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre) silent best friend fight in the pilot, and David and Sky’s lip sync performance of New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love” in Episode 5 (“Love or Poetize These Hoes)—weren’t finalized before the three episodes that were provided for review were sent out. It was legible enough where those effects will eventually show up (and in terms of Season 1 parallels, it seems like there’s likely to be another silent conversation between David and his niece in a tense moment towards the end of the first episode), but as it stands, it’s equally impossible for me to interpret the extent to which those fantastical visual flourishes will enrich this newest season.
That said, the series made so many smart, careful decisions in its first season that it earned an enormous amount of goodwill; with McCraney back behind the script and Dee Harris-Lawrence back in the showrunner’s seat, I have little doubt it will prove itself all over again. If anything were to give me pause, it would be the fact that, in jumping half the story forward, Akili McDowell’s presence this season will be necessarily diminished—Season 1 was always going to be good, whoever landed the lead role, but it’s undeniable that McDowell getting that gig is what made it great; that Season 2 will feature so much less of him is a true bummer. Still, Patterson is so astonishingly good at channeling the specific energy, tics, and speech patterns McDowell spent Season 1 developing for David—as are Arlen Escarpeta as Adult JG (originated by Cayden K. Williams) and Erica Luttrell as Adult Marissa (originated by Lindsey Blackwell)—that I’m willing to be convinced.
If you were a fan of David Makes Man when it first premiered, I hope you’re willing to be convinced, too. And if you’ve yet to give the series a chance at all? Well, HBO Max has your back for Season 1. And I promise—even if you won’t get to watch Season 2 until it hits the streamer in 2022 or whatever, the first season packs a satisfying wallop, and absolutely works as a standalone binge. Just, you know, be ready to cry.
The second season of David Makes Man premieres Tuesday, June 22 at 9 p.m. on OWN. Season 1 is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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