Woke review: Hulu’s political comedy about race is too focused on white comfort

Hulu’s Woke is a decent show with a bad title. A fictionalized version of the life and career of cartoonist Keith Knight, the sitcom often feels like a grab bag of anecdotes Knight acquired while living in the Bay Area in the ’90s and ‘00s. The show tries to center on timely topics, and isn’t always successful. But over the course of its first season, it does make a few fresh observations.

New Girl’s Lamorne Morris stars as Keef Knight, a Black cartoonist on the verge of a massive payday, thanks to the syndication of his unremarkable, innocuous comic strip Toast & Butter. Content with selling out, Keef avoids imbuing his art with any political statements, out of fear of offending his predominately white audience. Keef’s major turning point comes in a visceral scene where the police tackle and handcuff him because he supposedly fits the description of a mugger. After this traumatic experience, Keef starts to hallucinate inanimate objects speaking to him. The objects goad him into finally expressing his repressed anger at San Francisco’s racism. Obviously, this causes him some problems.

What might rub a lot of people the wrong way is that Woke’s concept of the term “woke” doesn’t fit with the way the word is commonly used in 2020. “Woke” today (both sincerely and derisively) is often used to describe a subculture based in social-media savviness, leftist politics, and a keen awareness of political issues, especially around racial and social justice. Woke uses the word in line with its original connotation, with Keef’s friends using it to describe his newfound awareness and general discomfort with racial injustice, while he himself doesn’t identify as woke.

Photo: Michael Courtney / Hulu

That sums up the core tension of Woke, at least in the early going. Creators Keith Knight and Marshall Todd, along with showrunner Jay Dyer, want to poke fun at the idea of wokeness while having nuanced discussions about it. But the humor is uneven, and it isn’t always clear that the writers really know what social awareness of racism is about. The character Ayana (SNL’s Sasheer Zamata) is the show’s closest approximation to a mascot for woke culture: a queer Black feminist and editor of a Bay Area alt-weekly. (In the world of Woke, alt-weeklies still get printed.) Sometimes the show positions her as a progressive foil to Keef’s reluctance to engage with issues around racism, but more often, Woke turns Ayana’s radicalism into the butt of jokes. More balance between these two approaches could have led to some nuanced comedy, but as it is, the show feels muddled. Is Keef a late-blooming activist in the early stages of training, or an Only Sane Man surrounded by egomaniacs and ideologues? Woke wants to have it both ways.

Woke’s creators don’t consider many topics off-limits — in the first season alone, they satirize police brutality, white liberal racism, cancel culture, interracial relationships, Black artistic integrity, and mental health. But too much of the humor lacks an edge. Watch the show enough, and you can set your watch by the time it takes characters to follow up a joke with an explanation. It’s hard to ignore how self-conscious this show seems to be about the white gaze. (Which seems ironic, given how Keef’s character arc focuses on his need to cut ties with his white fanbase.) Workaholics’ Blake Anderson does some phenomenal improv as Keef’s roommate Gunther, and iZombie’s Rose McIver is charismatic as ever as Adrienne the love interest. But as written, these characters only seem to exist to reassure white people that it’s okay to laugh.

As they fulfill their roles as “good allies,” making deft, witty observations about race like the show’s Black main characters, their whiteness goes largely unexamined. In one telling scene, Keef is lamenting the loss of his contractual rights to his cartoons, and Gunther says “Gosh, Black people are the worst at holding onto their shit.” After getting quizzical looks from the two Black men he’s talking to, he nervously asks, “Am I allowed to say that?” Keef shrugs and answers, “Yeah, sure. Who cares?” and the comment is never referenced again.

It’s easy to tell when Woke’s situations are lifted from Knight’s actual life. In one episode, Keef goes around SF posting flyers for a fake service that would allow customers to rent Black people. It’s a subplot directly based off a stunt Knight pulled several years ago to call out the disposability of Black workers at Bay Area corporations. The show authentically preserves the variety of reactions the flyers received, which opens the episode up to some unexpected interactions. Another episode catalogues Keef’s attempts to garner clout among Oakland’s community of Black artists by engaging in performative Blackness, and again, the specificity of this experience allows the humor to ring true. Woke’s more biographical elements — which prioritize Keef and his psychology ahead of any trite social commentary — make for the show’s strongest moments. But these moments are like pepper in the soup of Woke’s many interests.

Lamorne Morris holds up a Sharpie in Woke

Photo: Joe Lederer / Hulu

For much of the season, Woke feels like a less ambitious version of Boots Riley’s incisive film Sorry to Bother You. It’s so concerned with making sure white viewers have an in to all its racial humor that it takes some time to differentiate itself among the current renaissance of Black-led television comedies. Shows like Atlanta, Insecure, Random Acts of Flyness, and The Carmichael Show have proven that shows centering on Black identity don’t need to be Racism 101 pamphlets in order to be funny, accessible, and important. And Woke seems to know this too, because there’s a pretty clear divide late in the season where the show eases up on all the on-the-nose clownery and becomes more personal.

The latter half of Woke shows Keef as a man in search of an identity, desperately pivoting to anything that will give him one: his cartoons, social-justice activism, a free-spirited girlfriend. In the final two episodes, Keith’s talking-object hallucinations — which figure surprisingly little during the early part of the show — make way for a sober reflection on mental health and PTSD. Woke has the capacity to tell honest stories about its subject matter, and its cast and sense of setting lend a unique texture. If future seasons are willing to be more personal, less concerned about the white gaze, and more willing to address Keef’s class and male privilege, Woke could make a name for itself next to the other shows mining similar territory.

All eight episodes of Woke’s first season are now streaming on Hulu.

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