Let’s first address the off-putting elephant in the room: “Woke” is a terrible name for any television or internet show — especially right now. Nevertheless, here we are, reviewing Hulu’s confusingly-received Woke, which depicts a fictionalized (and modernized) version of the life and career of beloved local cartoonist Keith Knight through the various stunts he pulled in the 90s and ‘00s.
The show tries to center on timely topics and narratives through all those dated anecdotes… but as we’ve discovered, it isn’t usually successful. Over the course of its first season, Woke — starring New Girl’s Lamorne Morris as Keef, an illustrator based on Knight (who also co-created the series), Blake Anderson of Workaholics as his roommate Gunther, SNL’s Sasheer Zamata as local alt-weekly reporter Ayana, and more — clumsily stumbles far more than it confidently strides.
TL;DR: Woke is a mildly fun, surface-level watch that lacks the nuance it needs to fill an opening in all of our already hectic binging schedules.
Here’s a rundown of three things Woke sort of gets right… and three things it absolutely does not.
Right: The lingering traumas of police brutality
Of the shortlist of concrete goals Woke’s first season manages to accomplish, one is its portrayal of the PTSD, crippling anxiety, and another manner of mental health woes that accompany trauma. After being accosted by an all-white police group — in a very public manner while flyering — Keef’s uneasy subconscious starts to express itself outwardly in everyday inanimate objects — trash cans, 40-ounce malt liquor bottles, and, most notably, a marker. His struggles also highlight the larger narrative of the mental health plights many actually face when becoming “woke,” themselves. Amid a long list of missteps, this is one of the few through-lines the streaming series manages to unquestionably land.
Wrong: It’s a tepid approach to the current BLM movement
Aside from a lack of face coverings, it’s odiously clear that Woke was a pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd dive into the murky waters of racial inequalities we’ve seen in 2020. The “controversial topics” the series addresses couldn’t feel less nuanced or timely; they all seem to lack the certain urgency and rage millions of Americans now feel as Black men and women continue to die en masse. Though the plunges into Black America appear suitable, yes — they seem to exist in a greater, more removed narrative than the one we’re currently all confronted with on a daily basis. However, should the series be renewed for a second season, it would be interesting to see how the show chooses to look more inwardly at the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, as well as the recent shooting of Jacob Blake.
Right: Nailing the Bay Area’s progressive, at times holier-than-thou hipster culture
It’s almost hard not to cringe at Gunther’s overtly West Coast liberal hipness — and you can’t help but feel that’s exactly how Knight wants you to endure watching him go about his life. The entire eight episodes ebb and flow on a sort of newfound hipster convergence for the controversial cartoonist, too. And in that meeting, no quote “lefty” topic is off-limits to tackle: police brutality, white liberal racism, cancel culture, queerness and gender conformity, Black creative integrity (and appropriation), and, of course, mental health.
Wrong: Oversimplifies Bay Area homelessness and the financial struggles many locals face
Watching Woke, you’re enveloped in the Bay Area and SF’s historically bohemian qualities and creative twangs around every plot turn. But what’s sorely lacking is an honest, not-so-pretty portrayal of the many financial struggles hundreds of thousands face across the Bay Area, all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. (Again, the show was written and shot a while ago.) A passive watch through the series leaves you understanding that "it’s expensive" to live in the region, but otherwise viewers are merely presented with digestible, sliding-screen-door glimpses into the homelessness problem, rather than ever tackling it in its complexity. But I guess it's a comedy, so...
Right: The radicalness of Keith Knight himself
Even just two episodes in, you (as a viewer) are immediately reminded about the prankster, pot-stirring genius that is the IRL Keith Knight. The show thoroughly highlights his sharp wit and antics — like, for example, posting flyers around SF for a bogus service that would allow customers to rent Black people. The show also relays the well-documented and wide-ranging reactions his flyers received, allowing for some space to have uncomfortable conversations with those you may be watching with. Moreover, when Woke manages to pepper in those kinds of moments, it provides some much-needed seasoning for an otherwise bland viewing experience.
Wrong: It’s white palatability
Woke’s most egregious disappointment isn’t in its blind-eyeing of certain topics or its bouts of hollow humor, but rather in how the scripts are clearly manifested under the idea of white palatability. Every detail — the cadences, the cinematography, the depictions of Black America — of the show come across as diluted... as if Hulu’s executive board (which doesn’t include a single Black individual) was afraid the intended final product would be “too Black” for a broader audience to get behind. Alas, we’re left with flashes of authenticity that merely get overshadowed by an umbrella of lukewarm convictions.
And that, reader, is the opposite of being "woke."
Image: Screenshot via YouTube