'Woke' is a smart comedy that arrives a little late to the party
When the coronavirus started to shut the country down earlier this year, it began a ripple in a wave that washed over everything in the entertainment industry, and we continue to see the effects today. Grey’s Anatomy and This Is Us will incorporate COVID-19 into their storylines, and in the latter’s case, they may also take on the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen following the deaths of multiple Black people at the hands of police. In the case of Woke, Hulu’s new racially conscious comedy, we’re also seeing how these events affect a series filmed before the shutdown—and with this one, it may not have necessarily been for the better.
Inspired by the life of co-creator Keith Knight, New Girl veteran Lamorne Morris plays Keef, a San Francisco-based cartoonist whose local comic strip Toast & Butter is on the verge of a national syndication deal. Like most Black people, Keef experiences daily microaggressions, but he has no desire to fight for any causes, nor imbue his work with deeper meaning. Then, while promoting an upcoming convention appearance, Keef is mistaken for a mugger and gets violently detained by the police. He comes away physically unharmed, but he develops a brand-new perspective in the form of talking inanimate objects who encourage him to act out against his personal injustices.
Morris was one of the consistently great elements of New Girl, and it’s refreshing to see him take on a different kind of role. He plays Keef in a very understated manner, even in the character’s more unstable moments, and he’s completely captivating throughout—some of the more serious, confrontational moments of the series allow Morris to flex some amazing acting chops. Those same moments, though, can leave you wanting a bit more, and that feeling looms over most of the season. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more have incited a national uproar, and it feels like a majority of Americans are finally meeting the moment—which unfortunately leaves Woke looking like it’s trying to catch up. Late in the season, when a small protest begins, someone holds up a sign featuring names of Black people that have been previously murdered, including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Not seeing Floyd or Taylor’s names on the same board somehow feels wrong.
The direction of the season as a whole also felt inconsistent. Somewhere around the middle, the concept with the talking objects largely faded away, and the show went back and forth between large-scale displays of activism, and how race affected the characters’ interpersonal relationships. It’s the latter of those where I feel that Woke was its strongest: One of the best episodes took place entirely in Keef’s apartment, where he and his new white girlfriend debated how much their differences influenced their attitudes toward each other, while Keef’s roommate, Clovis (T. Murph), got to know Ayana (Sasheer Zamata), a reporter who supports Keef’s new projects. Zamata was criminally underutilized, and I’d love to see her more integrated into the group next season.
Woke aims to be the catalyst of a larger conversation against social injustice, but I’d argue that the country has already begun that challenge. Should the show be renewed, it would benefit from going inward and focusing on the effect this new movement has on these characters. If it does that, it has the potential to be something truly special.