The term “Woke” has become so often used in pop culture that it may as well now be parody. But it remains functional, describing an awareness of the social issues that are important to the lives of the marginalized. Any television series can work in a MAGA hat joke, or a jocular reference to President Donald J. Trump’s orange tan. But it takes a truly exceptional show to actually present and analyze relevant subject matter while also telling a compelling and entertaining story. But despite its title, Hulu’s new comedy-drama series “Woke” doesn’t entirely satisfy on either count.
Former “New Girl” star Lamorne Morris returns to television in the semi-animated series, which is inspired by the life and work of artist Keith Knight, known for his humorous cartoon handlings of political, social, and racial issues. The wannabe hip San Francisco Bay area-set series tackles conventional definitions of Blackness in comical — though not in particularly fresh or insightful — ways.
In “Woke,” Morris plays Keef, a self-identified non-controversial Black cartoonist on the verge of mainstream success. He starts being confronted about racial inequality by animated inanimate objects shortly after he has an encounter with aggressive, gun-toting police officers, who mistaken him for a mugging suspect. The incident changes everything. Keef begins to come to grips with all the stark realities of being Black in America that he’s been pretending don’t exist by navigating the new voices in his head who challenge him with what are ostensibly new ideas to him, without letting go of all that he’s been able to accomplish pre-woke.
“We’ve been tryin’a holla at you for a minute,” an animated 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor (voiced by Eddie Griffin) yells comically at Keef, as he peruses the aisles of a grocery store, because nothing screams “Blackness” more than low quality, cheap booze. A second bottle (Nicole Byer) chimes in with, “Now you can finally hear us! Buckle up, n—-! This ride ain’t for the weak!”
And this anthropomorphism continues throughout the series, featuring a voice cast that also includes Cedric the Entertainer, Keith David, JB Smoove, and others. Initially cute, it’s a gimmick that the series relies on more than it should, and starts to become more grating than entertaining.
But it’s all in service of ensuring that “keeping it light” Keef becomes woke, with a fresh outlook on the world around him. However, instead of his consciousness ultimately becoming elevated, he crawls trudgingly towards what is supposed to be an insightful revelation at the end of the series’ eight episode first season, while making trite observations about the aggressions Black people face regularly. And what really should be a narrative about one man’s sudden racial awakening instead leaves him wading in an exploratory oblivion almost indefinitely.
For example, Keef contemplates what it means when his publishers lighten his skin in his publicity photos; he and his friend Clovis argue in the street about whether they should turn in a white woman’s lost purse because Clovis fears their good deed will instead be punished and they’ll be accused of stealing it; Keef is paid by a wealthy white woman to be a guest an upscale party, where (surprise!) he is the only Black attendee and has to contend with uncomfortable stares and field nauseating questions about reparations and other “Black” subject matter.
It’s not that these aren’t very real issues, but the series’ observations are disseminated in uninspired theatrics. The conflicts are overly simplified and the main characters are mostly thinly sketched. And “Woke” gets a lot of its mileage out of how Morris plays against stereotype as a man who navigates the world freely and openly as a “not Black enough” Black man whose interests aren’t conventionally “Black,” and he ponders questions like: “Why is it that people of color are always having to stand for something? I’m just a cartoonist.”
Neither Morris’ performance nor the series’ writing are outright inept, but neither ever feels like they’re serving each other adequately. To start with, it’s simply not fathomable that a 30-something-year-old Black man as erudite as Keef is presented to be, living in present day USA — specifically, home of the proverbial “West Coast liberal” — would be so lacking in self-awareness, or assume to be immune to racism and police brutality following the many deaths of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement over the last decade. As structured, even as an intentional subversion of a stereotype or caricature, whatever the expected impact should be just doesn’t land. And it instead ends up feeling like a miscalculation by creators Marshall Todd and Keith Knight which undermines the series by the end of the first episode. It all becomes monotonous and ultimately lacks the mileage necessary to sustain an entire season.
But what might make the ride somewhat tolerable is that Morris’ relatively laid-back performance provides opportunities for his more outwardly brazen co-stars to shine. While not fully fleshed out (as is sadly the case for pretty much all of the series’ women characters), “Saturday Night Live” alum Sasheer Zamata’s Ayana, an uber-woke journalist for an alternative news journal who befriends Keef, keeps him on his toes. But the show’s breakout character may be Keef’s roommate and self-perceived ladies man, Clovis (standup comedian T. Murph), who steals every scene he’s in, and rightfully grumbles about Keef’s sudden attempts at an awakening: “Now we gotta hear about it because all this shit is new to you? Come on, man!”
It’s an exclamation that viewers will likely bellow as well, even though it isn’t clear who exactly “Woke’s” target audience is.
As an “issues” show, the series just isn’t quite the nuanced, instructive plunge into the Black experience that America needs at the moment. It probably seemed more provocative when it was being developed a couple of years ago, but in the wake of nationwide racial justice protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, as well as the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, it’s a series that feels out of time. To be sure, it still has a message, but if renewed for a second season, it will need to be far more inward-looking and rousing with its angles.
It’s not that “Woke” doesn’t have important points to make about a country’s collective history of racial bias. It’s that it doesn’t go a long away enough to make those points feel organic to the story and style, whether it’s going for realism or subversion.
Filmed in its entirety just before the pandemic started, the series was shot on location, and the cliché with this kind of locally flavored show is to say that “the city is the star.” To its credit, the Bay Area in “Woke” is more of a state of mind; of Black American life, where street and bourgeois, OG and hipster converge. Even in an increasingly diverse television environment, it’s notable for a series on a major platform to be this varied in its Blackness (including behind the scenes).
“Woke” has a serious spine, but the tone is light, even goofy, as a dramedy so caught up in what it thinks are teachable moments that it often doesn’t succeed at either.
All eight episodes of “Woke” premiere on September 9 on Hulu.