Does Hulu’s drama/comedy about race get us shook or put us back to sleep?
When we looked ahead at Hulu’s original programming for September, Woke jumped out at me. As a fan of cartoonist Keith Knight’s work, I was interested to see how this semi-biographical series would translate his style of social commentary. It wasn’t an instant winner, but by the end of my viewing, I’d made my mind up about Woke.
Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris), creator of Toast & Butter, is a Black cartoonist on the verge of mainstream success. He prides himself on ‘keeping it light’ and shies away from taking controversial stances. After being racially profiled by overly-aggressive policemen, the traumatized Keef finds that he’s able to see and hear inanimate objects talking to him. Now more sensitive to racism, and the everyday microaggressions he’d tried so hard to avoid acknowledging in every situation, Keef must figure out how to maintain his relationships and a career as a ‘woke’ Black man.
Episode 1: Rhymes with Broke
Keef is having a really good day. After a photo shoot at his publisher’s in the run up to his appearance at Golden Con, he goes to meet his girlfriend Trina to talk about moving in together. The next day, while hanging flyers for his Golden Con appearance, Keef is thrown to the ground and handcuffed because he supposedly resembles a mugger loose in the area. On his way home after being traumatized, he imagines inanimate objects talking to him, telling him that the world is racist and it’s time for him to stand up for himself.
Woke starts off strong. The first episode, the longest one of the series, covers a lot of ground and feels properly like the start of a miniseries as opposed to a longer form series. That is to say, it feels more substantial than most pilots, which generally just offer a taste of what will be on offer.
I like the cast and the characters. That’s a nice surprise since I hated Lamorne Morris in Bloodshot, yet here he’s excellent. The show works in the weirder elements nicely, namely the talking inanimate objects Keef encounters after getting “woke”. The voice work is solid, featuring recognizable talent like Eddie Griffin, Cedric the Entertainer, and even Keith David later on. A solid first episode.
Episode 2: What Prequels?
Keef goes to Bloom & Hill to smooth things and finds out that his meltdown has gone viral. As he tries to undo the damage, his relationships begin to implode.
So. Episode two gets off to a shaky start. Keef (and the shows) strategy for dealing with all of the big events covered in the first episode is to try to walk them back or lampshade them. I got a sinking feeling, like the first episode of The Boys Season 2, where major developments were going to be ignored to stretch the run-time.
I also started to notice that everyone on the show not named Keef are either comic relief or callous. In an autobiographical show (where a plot point emerges that Keef has a tendency to throw people under the bus) it can feel a bit self-serving.
Episode 3: Gig E. Smalls.
Keef starts to lean into making edgier content, but his old publisher threaten to sue him over his old contract. Working as a driver in the gig economy, Keef meets a wealthy artist who pays him to come to a party where he is the only Black person there. He meets another young artist, Adrienne (Rose McIver) who inspires him, and they begin a relationship.
Episode 3 nearly sunk the ship, but finished up strong. As Keef begins to be more in-tune with how being “woke” can fit into his life, his character opens up beyond a kind of bland niceness. Other characters around him start to fill in as well.
Binge or Purge?: Woke.
Woke really rode the knife’s edge when it came to a verdict. The first episode was really good, but the series didn’t recapture that level of energy and strong character interactions till the very end of episode three. It wasn’t actually till episode 5 that the show really hit its groove for me. In that episode, we get a ton of character development for the supporting cast which saves them from feeling like Jerry Seinfeld’s crazy, selfish neighbors.
Once you get into the second half of the show, it comes together. There’s a lot of juxtaposition on how to be “woke”: for Keef it’s a reluctant necessity, for Ayana (Sasheer Zamata) it’s a proud struggle, and for Clovis (T. Murph) it’s a sucker’s game. The more time you get with each person, the more that tension becomes the driving force. Obvious satire about San Francisco liberalism, corporate double-speak, and the gig economy feel like distractions – and aren’t presented in a particularly novel way. The show’s not Idiocracy, it’s a tangled conversation about how to deal with race in the US, and on that front it’s worth listening to.