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Hulu's Woke should feel incredibly timely, but it arrives feeling dated

  • The problem with the Hulu comedy starring New Girl alum Lamorne Morris as cartoonist Keef Knight is that it takes place in the present day, where coronavirus is referenced. "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," says Alan Sepinwall. "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...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."


    • Woke would've been less bad if it premiered in 2019: "Had the new Hulu comedy Woke — starring Lamorne Morris as a Black cartoonist in San Francisco who undergoes a racial awakening after a traumatic encounter with the police — debuted last year, it could’ve been an instantly forgettable also-ran among the issues-driven sitcoms of Peak TV," says Inkoo Kang. "But debuting after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, and the resulting resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Woke doesn’t just feel redundant, but ranklingly under-thought. It’s not only that Woke is so politically tepid, although it’s that, too. It’s that the show cares so little to flesh out its protagonist, Keef Knight, that we have no idea why a 30-something Black man who was presumably alive and conscious during the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Philando Castile by cops just a few years ago would presume that police violence would never happen to him. And that lack of context and backstory is all-the-more conspicuous when the show shoehorns in the coronavirus through post-production dialogue, which means that Woke is set in 2020… but its majority-Black cast of characters never think to connect Keef’s rough treatment by law enforcement with anything else happening this year. Timidity and carelessness hobble this star vehicle for Morris, who supplied a much-needed wildcard energy on Fox’s New Girl and who is too often stuck making chitchat with a marker here."
    • It takes a truly exceptional show to actually present and analyze relevant subject matter while also telling a compelling and entertaining story -- that's not Woke: "Neither Morris’ performance nor the series’ writing are outright inept, but neither ever feels like they’re serving each other adequately," says Tambay Obenson. "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."
    • Woke prefers to use a clever, cutting sense of humor to address weighty issues, and it works thanks to Lamorne Morris: "He has an easygoing, laid-back appeal, and so does this show," says Dave Nemetz, adding: "Woke has its goofy side, to be sure, but it’s thoughtful as well, handling thorny subject matter with a light, comical touch. It doesn’t minimize the very real issues Keef faces, but it vividly illustrates them with highly specific observations: Keef and his friend being afraid to turn in a white girl’s lost wallet because then they’ll be accused of stealing it; Keef’s syndication team lightening up his author photo to broaden his appeal; the 'cultural plunder' of shows like Antiques Roadshow; the lessons to be learned from John Legend’s career path. The jokes are hilariously on target, especially when taking aim at San Francisco’s well-meaning but clueless white population, who treat Keef as a fun curiosity but can’t seem to fully understand his concerns because they 'don’t see color.'"
    • Woke is effervescent, irreverent, and sharp — exactly the kind of comedy we need: "Over the course of eight episodes, Keef rediscovers and grapples with his voice as an artist," says Proma Khosla. "The whimsical, keep-it-light Keef Knight is no more, but Woke Keef stumbles his way through satire, terrified of offensive or inflammatory material until he finds the power in both. The cast and writers will make you chortle and cringe as Keef navigates his awakening, often with embarrassing yet empowering public outbursts as he's haunted by his cartoon woke whisperers. To put it in film terms, Woke invokes the twisted race commentary of Sorry to Bother You rather than the straightforward treachery of Get Out."
    • Woke suffers from the season-long pilot problem: "Pilot episodes are really hard to get right. There’s so much a good pilot needs to do: Introduce a group of characters and establish their relationships to each other, place those characters in a vivid and compelling universe with clearly delineated rules, and set up a central, ongoing conflict that will drive the story," says Kristen Baldwin. "Plenty of great shows had to overcome mediocre pilots (classic example: 30 Rock), while countless other series pour everything they have into an excellent pilot, leaving the creative tank empty for the second episode and beyond (see: every Lost rip-off ever). Even in this disruption-happy era of Peak Screen TV — where shows can categorize themselves as everything from 'a feature film in 18 parts' to 'quick bites' — stories have to start somewhere. Pilots are inevitable. But in recent years, a troubling number of series have attempted to circumvent these challenges by turning their pilot into a season-long endeavor, using multiple episodes to convey What This Show Is About rather than getting it done in 30 or 60 minutes. Recent offenders include HBO’s Perry Mason, Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This, and now Hulu’s Woke, a clever comedy about one man's struggle to come to terms with his Blackness that leaves its hero in existential limbo for far too long...Woke spends its 8-episode season nudging Keef toward his epiphany, all the while making necessary but not particularly interesting discoveries about the variety of micro- and macro-aggressions Black people face every day."
    • Woke finds itself in a particularly tricky place: "Woke isn’t the only show made before the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, that will receive a scrutiny its makers couldn’t have predicted," says Mike Hale. "But as a low-key, largely amiable comedy that spends as much time critiquing — or gently mocking — wokeness as it does affirming it, it’s in a particularly tricky place. If the show manages to maneuver through its self-planted minefield fairly nimbly, and maintain a moderate but comfortable level of amusement, much of the credit goes to the perfectly cast Morris, best known for his seven seasons on New Girl. He’s an expert at projecting an affable complacency that comes out of good-naturedness rather than entitlement, and his wounded, crotchety reactions as Keef’s world turns upside down keep us invested even when the situations and jokes get wheezy."
    • Woke's attempt to distill a story about serious racial trauma and one’s social awakening into a whimsical, partially animated comedy doesn't work: "In theory, a dash of absurdity would be a refreshing chaser for a tragically large pill," says Shannon Miller. "However, there isn’t anything particularly refreshing about Knight and fellow creator Marshall Todd’s tepid comedy—which is an uncomfortable thing to admit about a work that directly mines some of its material from the former’s trauma."
    • Woke is political, but not polemical — a conversation, not a sermon: "A largely successful mix of genres and themes — some romance, some wacky cohabitation comedy and some social satire, regarding identity, authenticity, justice, performative rage and real exhaustion — Woke does sometimes go just where you might expect, but more often does not," says Robert Lloyd. "Set in and more than usually about San Francisco (represented by stock shots, a drag queen and Vancouver, Canada), it is timely enough that the novel coronavirus is mentioned — production wrapped at the end of February — but not so timely that more than one person is seen wearing a mask... If it is a story about race, it’s also one of a more or less reasonable person in a world of knuckleheads, trying to make sense of himself."
    • Woke gets right the way it deftly addresses racial profiling, excessive police force, and the PTSD Keef suffers soon thereafter: "Realistic and relatable, the pain Keef tries to downplay naturally comes to a head and sets up a brilliantly executed Season 1 finale," says Makeisha Madden Toby. "Although the comedic series wrapped before George Floyd's murder and the racial reckoning that followed, the premise is tragically timeless. Keef's inner struggles as a Black artist versus an artist who happens to be Black is an unapologetically funny and honest through line that also gives the show the authenticity it needs. Although San Francisco as a setting doesn't factor in as the uncredited character that it should, Stanley Clarke's thoughtful score deliciously folds in a number of Black musical influences and vibes. After all, Woke is a vibe worth experiencing. The trick is sticking around long enough for its version of enlightenment to pay off."
    • Political cartoonist and Woke inspiration/co-creator Keith Knight recalls leaving "Black people for rent" flyers around San Francisco in the early aughts: “The most bizarre calls were from Black people looking for jobs. Those were the most calls. And that was when I was like, wow, this is more than just a comic strip. I’ve gotta do something with this,” says Knight.
    • How Lamorne Morris ended up starring in Woke: "It came about a couple of years ago. I read the script post-New Girl," he says. "I thought I’d want to take a break from television and just try to shoot my shot at film, just all film, and keep it two months on a project, take a month off, go back to work, something like that. And so we read a bunch of scripts and shot a couple of movies and I just kind of missed television a little bit. I remember reaching out to my agent saying, 'Hey, what’s going on out there TV-wise?' And I got a lot of multi-cam shows, which were pretty funny, and a lot of sitcoms, which were pretty funny, but I said, 'Well, I just did something that was really, really just pure comedy based.' I wanted to shoot something that kind of had more heart to it. Something that when you watch it, you kind of feel moved in some sort of way where it would have some sort of cause for discussion. And I remember reading the script and just going, 'Holy crap.' It’s kind of brilliant because it also mirrors my life and how I view the world."
    • Morris, who's dealt with police harassment, says it's astonishing how much the perception of police brutality has changed this year: “It’s crazy, the shift that has happened in our country, just people being aware," he says. "I think a lot of times, maybe people were either in denial or didn’t care, but then now when it’s out there, people are genuinely aware and people care about it, and I feel the conversations that are happening are very productive, whether someone takes your stance politically or not,” he says. “And a show like this, I think, just mirrors the times that we’re in. It mirrors the times that we’ve always been in.”
    • Morris says Woke was always going to feel relevant: "No matter where you drop it, it’s going to feel like we made the show based off of that particular incident," he says. "We had no idea what was gonna happen with George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and, now, Jacob Blake. We had no clue. But that’s the time that we live in, where, with camera phones, we’re seeing it a lot more now."
    • Morris on his New Girl vs. Woke characters: "New Girl had some of those undertones, but at the end of the day, Winston just smiled and figured it out," he says. "He was more harmonious whereas Keef becomes more militant in his approach, more direct. Where Winston's objective was family, friends, relationships, being a good police officer, Keef's objective now is dealing with this PTSD, and dealing with what he thought the state of affairs was. Realizing that they're different and having to overcome that and address that. That's his objective, to find some sort of clarity and peace in all of this. That wasn't Winston's objective. Winston just was hit with stuff, with certain realizations and revelations of things. I think Winston was always more aware than Keef. He just didn't live in that environment. If you see his roommates, they're white, and so he didn't need to. I will say, yeah, I just feel like Winston is a magical Negro. He's always helpful and smiley and all that stuff. It's always stuck in my head that (he's) always willing to help, and that's kind of how Keef was, but then the fog has been lifted, and so he shifted his point of view and his perspective. He's more so activated in a militant stance. Towards the end (of season 1), he crosses some lines, and I think the audience could really identify with it. Maybe it's jarring to some people, but I think a lot of people can identify with it."

    TOPICS: Woke, Hulu, Keith Knight, Lamorne Morris, Marshall Todd, Black Lives Matter