‘Woke’ Review: Hulu’s New Satirical Comedy Falls Short of High Hopes

     September 11, 2020

woke-lamorne-morris-slice[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Woke, “Blue Lies Matter.”]

The disappointing new Hulu series Woke is a comedy from the minds of Keith Knight (The K Chronicles) and Marshall Todd (Barbershop), inspired by Knight’s real-life experiences. Black cartoonist Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris, New Girl) is known for his hit comic strip “Toast and Butter,” and walks a straight line, not generally rocking the boat when it comes to social justice issues. But being wrongfully accosted by a San Francisco police officer fundamentally changes him, giving him the “superpower” of being able to hear inanimate objects. These objects thrust Keef into the position of confronting racism, helping him navigate his “new” place as a Black man in society.

When Keef is unjustly apprehended by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) while posting flyers for “Toast and Butter,” it unlocks a “wokeness” in him unlike anything before. Unable to initially reconcile his feelings from this occurrence, Keef has a very public outburst that ends up costing him his job. By shutting out his girlfriend Katrina (Alvina August, Nancy Drew), he ends up losing her as well, forcing Keef to confront his trauma head-on. With no one else to turn to, Keef leans on his roommates, Clovis (T. Murph, Chicago Fire) and Gunther (Blake Anderson, Workaholics), and two new female acquaintances he makes along the way, Ayana (Sasheer Zamata, Robbie) and Adrienne (Rose McIver, iZombie).

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Image via Hulu

While the performances are solid for the material at hand, particularly Murph’s and Zamata’s, many of Woke’s storylines don’t astound or even interest. Keef’s interaction with the SFPD is not uncommon for us as Black people walking through the world, yet Keef’s journey to becoming “woke” still isn’t all that memorable. Throughout all eight episodes, Keef is visibly traumatized by the upheaval of his personal and professional life, and yet none of this leads anywhere until the end. It wasn’t until the final three episodes that additional context was provided and a small part of what I was hoping for throughout the entirety of the series, came to fruition.

Keef’s friendships all take up space in the story, but most rarely feel genuine, valuable, or add depth to Keef’s overall journey. Clovis initially holds Keef accountable for ignoring his identity, but oftentimes is dismissive or gives terrible advice — Murph plays the douchebag well, but I wanted more from Clovis as a character. Where Clovis could empathize, bond, or advise constructively, he falls short. Instead, in Clovis’s glaring absence, the heavy lift of emotional support falls on Ayana. Zamata is charming as Ayana, but the problem lies in that Ayana is a stranger that witnesses Keef’s very public meltdown, and consistently remains a stranger to him for the entirety of the season.

While Keef steadily uses Ayana as a crutch for her brilliance and emotional stability, he quite frankly knows nothing about her. Keef rarely engages her unless it is for his own personal or professional gain. Why is this stranger providing Keef with more sound advice and support than one of his closest friends? Why is Ayana tasked with holding Keef accountable and catalyzing his growth over Clovis? Ironically, the person who eventually develops a friendship with Ayana is Clovis, but even that has a misogynistic beginning. Clovis’s narcissistic attempts to pursue Ayana are thwarted only when she reveals she is a lesbian — proving once again the men on this show are only interested in how Ayana can serve their interests. Since Ayana has seemingly been appointed man whisperer of the show and granted great influence over their household, she starts to help Clovis shift his behaviors and ways of thinking by the end of the season, but even when the focus shifts on Clovis helping Ayana with a problem, it feels a bit rushed and misplaced in the storyline.

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Image via Hulu

Gunther provides a series of off-beat one-liners for comic relief in Keef’s tragic life, but I was never fully invested in him or his role. Even when they attempted to give him a story of his own, it didn’t provide any additional substance. Gunther provides whatever support he can but often cannot relate due to his privileged background. When Keef’s one-night stand with Adrienne turns into a little more, she starts to educate him about Black history. Having two white characters act as voices of reason and tools of education not only unnecessarily centered and placed them in unfavorable spaces devoid of purpose but also stylistically muddied a couple of the episodes for me. Given the subject matter and overall climate of the show, if the hope was that these two characters were supposed to be allies, then it failed for me — not only for that purpose, but also in providing measure to Keef’s story.

Towards the end, I finally started to see a notable shift in both the show’s tone and Keef, as we finally get a glimpse into the permanent impact that the inciting event has had on Keef’s life. Keef starts to prioritize himself and his healing through therapy. He starts to figure out the man he wants to be, and Lamorne pulls this portion of the season off seamlessly. The finale is the best episode yet, as Keef confronts the officer who violated him, and finally exposes the officer for his racist and predatory nature. Keef finally gets the clarity he needs to decide what type of man he wants to be and how he wants to live the rest of his life. He also makes a shift in his life, deciding that he should use his life and his art/creative content to speak out on social injustice.

While most of Woke is imperfect, the conclusion does provide some semblance of redemption, tying up the series and any unanswered questions. Maybe the writers strategically planned it this way, but it’s still unclear to me why it took the entire season to become fully invested in Keef. While I can’t fault the performances, the discontinuity and lack of purposeful writing are where the series failed for me. Initially having high hopes for Woke, I walked away not quite knowing who the intended audience was. And while the subject matter grabbed my attention, I had to wait until the final culmination for it to pay off.

Grade: C

Woke Season 1 is now available on Hulu.

Television