“Why is it that us people of color are always having to stand for something, or say something in our work?” Keef Knight complains. “That’s why I keep it light.”
Keef (played by Lamorne Morris), the hero of Hulu’s new comedy Woke, is a writer and artist on the verge of a life-changing syndication deal for his comic strip Toast and Butter. The strip does, indeed, keep it light: no talk of race, or politics, or any other subject that might make Keef’s audience — a predominantly white one, at that — uncomfortable. But then Keef, while innocently stapling flyers to a bulletin board, is assaulted by police officers who have mistaken him for a mugging suspect, and suddenly his perspective on what he should say with his work changes radically.
As Keef’s roommate Clovis (T. Murph) puts it, “You worked hard not to be that brother. Then you felt special. Then the police showed up and showed you how they feel about special [black people].”
Developed by Marshall Todd and cartoonist Keith Knight, inspired by the real Knight’s comic-strip work, the series should feel incredibly timely, given the conversation in America right now around police violence against black people, and the very loud resurgence of white supremacy. Instead, much of the show’s material, on both the satiric and the dramatic ends, feels unfortunately dated: a product of a time that feels like a million years ago(*), when someone like Keef could more easily compartmentalize his blackness without thinking about the institutionalized racism that’s palpable across life in the United States. Even Keef’s white roommate Gunther (Blake Anderson), who aspires to wokeness but is often oblivious, feels like a time traveler from, say, the early 2010s.
(*) You could treat the show as a recent period piece, but then a later episode finds Keef and Clovis on a city bus with a woman wearing a face mask. Clovis lists all the ailments she could be trying to protect herself from, including the coronavirus. That one line — clearly added in post-production, from a shot where Murph’s face isn’t visible — places the series either in our present, or, given the lack of anyone else wearing a mask or doing any kind of social distancing, a post-vaccine near future. Either way, talk of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Jacob Blake (among many others) would all be part of Keef’s world.
This is one of two big stumbling blocks for Woke. The show makes some sharp, witty observations about race in America, including an episode where Keef posts “Black People for Rent” signs all around San Francisco just to see how white people react. (Unsurprisingly, more than a few are in favor of the concept.) But a lot of it is aiming for what would have been cutting-edge in 2019, and instead spelling out things that both black and white America have been very publicly grappling with for months now. A later episode finds Keef speaking with a white cop about his ordeal; it’s a smart, tough, dramatic scene, but also one that feels off in a moment where this is a frequent topic of open discussion, rather than something being whispered privately.
The other issue is that the creative team (including showrunner Jay Dyer and director Maurice “Mo” Marable) is extremely hit-and-miss in their attempts to turn this fraught subject matter into comedy. In the early going, Keef’s response to the police encounter is presented as a mental breakdown: He begins hallucinating inanimate objects talking to him and scolding him for being insufficiently black. These figments are played by an all-star voice cast, including JB Smoove as Keef’s favorite black marker, Cedric the Entertainer as a talking trash can, Nicole Byer and Eddie Griffin as a pair of malt liquor bottles, and Sam Richardson and Tony Hale as Toast and Butter themselves. Sometimes, these outbursts are very funny, like the trash can venting about the gentrification of a black barbershop, calling it “some Negroland section of a hipster Magic Kingdom.” More often than not, though, the fantasy sequences rest entirely on the awkwardness of Keef carrying on one-sided arguments while onlookers worry that he’s insane. A little of that goes a very long way, which even the writers seem to recognize: The marker and his friends largely disappear around the season’s midpoint.
Morris was the MVP of the later years of New Girl, playing a weirdo whom no one would have been surprised to find arguing with a trash can. He was the comic relief there, though — the Clovis or Gunther figure, who could be used entirely for gags, without having to worry about an emotional or thematic arc. Here, he’s the heart and soul of the story, largely opting for an understated screen persona whenever Keef isn’t melting down in front of an audience. He’s convincing and likable, but he can only be as funny as his uneven material allows.
One of the season’s stronger episodes takes place inside the guys’ apartment in the hours after a party. It doesn’t entirely put the material about race on hold — the main plot has Keef arguing with his new girlfriend Adrienne (Rose McIver from iZombie) about how much him being black and her being white factors into their relationship — but it’s a much more relaxed, low-concept approach to the material than Woke usually aspires to be.
At one point during that argument, fellow artist Adrienne asks Keef what the message of his new work is. “I don’t have a message, necessarily,” he admits. He’s not sure of exactly what he wants to say, or how. Woke very much has a message about the complications of being black in a place that can be fundamentally hostile to blackness itself. Sometimes, it gets that message across in clever ways, while at others it seems as confused or out of step as Keef is.
Hulu is releasing all eight episodes of Woke on September 9th. I’ve seen the whole season.