Woke

3 out of 5

Created by: Keith Knight, Marshall Todd

covers seasons 1 and 2

Tackling racism and race relations from a bravely – purposefully – confuddled perspective, Woke’s fun cast and quirky setups never quite does anything with its subject matter beyond pointing a finger at it, trying to lampshade that it’s only pointing a finger at it, then picking at some more obvious targets before dancing back to the safety of quirk. This unfortunately boils it down to a series of bits that, while often pretty funny, feel like distractions so it never has to take anything too seriously. (And then it circles back around to lampshading the meta nature of that, while still not taking anything too seriously.)

Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris) is the black creator of the very pleases-everyone comic Toast & Butter, who chuckles off the “You’re Keef Knight?” recognition he gets from white fans, over surprise at the color of his skin; is happy enough to placate his corporate overlords on the way to getting his comic wider recognition; and questions why he, as a black creator, can’t just keep things light – why he needs to use his comic as a platform for messaging. This stance is mostly working out for him, until getting slammed to the ground by a police officer, panicking over Keef’s wielding of a stapler while putting up fliers. Eyes opened to how scenarios like this can even happen to him – and how they’re going on all around him – Keef firstly loses it a bit, imagining normally inanimate objects around him as lecturing him on social politics (sort of clunky sequences that are given charm thanks to voice acting by J.B. Smoove, Nicole Byer, and Eddie Griffin), and then starts to express his concerns / thoughts more openly.

Problem one: he often doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Problem two: his pleases-everyone platform isn’t a great medium for this, and he soon finds himself out of a job and alone.

This core concept – of someone having been subjected to racism, then wanting to speak up about it without being equipped to do so – is a really unique spin on this type of commentary, and Morris is portraying his struggle through that, ping-ponging thoughts off of his roommates, played by T. Murph and Blake Anderson, both often displaying more common sense than Morris’ character, though each with a comedic bent – Murph’s Clovis is a hustler and player; Anderson’s Gunther is perpetually stoned.

But again, this often ends up seeming like window dressing; like just a springboard for an episode title, that can then be dressed up with sitcom hijinx. Cringe comedy due to Knight’s lack of awareness is sprinkled on top of that, but that’s still all it is: comedy. Not insight; not exploration. And that renders both sides of the show pretty frustrating: the jokes never feel like they can take center stage because there’s a need to center it around purported commentary, and then the commentary ducks out of the way of the jokes, making sure – just like Keef’s initial cartoon – that we kinda play it safe, and there are very easy Karen-type targets and dumb cops but no real bad guys, certainly not me, no sir.

Woke, season one, is a watchable but rather vapid show, wanting very much to be a comedy but feeling indebted to make a point, never effectively splitting the difference.

And then they figured it out in season two, as Keef is allowed to evolve past his uncertain self from the previous season, preventing setups from feeling like a singular spin on pitting Keef’s (social) incompetence against Big Issues, plus quirky humor piled atop. The show branches out to look out how there’s ignorance and hypocrisy on all sides of the issues of race, and then continues to expand that view outward. It achieves this by more fully bringing the rest of the cast in, and giving them all mini-arcs beyond their one-note funny / dumb / tuff personas. It’s notable it mostly drops the talking inanimate object shtick, and stops trying to figure out some takeaway statement it can make about any given thing. By more directly acting as a comedy of foibles of its characters, the show not only unlocks the hilarity that was often there conceptually but not quite on screen in season one, but it’s also able to get sharper with its commentary by not pointing so directly at it. Not that it’s far away, as Keef gets involved with Big Business and the disparity between trying to do right and also be profitable is touched on in various ways throughout the season, but with the emphasis more on letting the talented cast do their thing, and a pretty inspired downward spin of events, all the jabs the show takes on its admittedly broader subject matter hit harder.

Though hardly rising above being offhandedly amusing in season 1, Woke, er, wakes up in season 2 to become something worth watching, and capable of more than a few belly laughs, as its cast gets more room to define their roles, and the show settles down on pushing its uniqueness and poignancy… rather unsurprisingly more able to be those things when not trying so hard at it.