‘Woke’ digs too deep in trenches of Black no man’s land, lands in muddy waters

Photo of the Hulu show, "Woke"

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

The web television series adaptation of Keith Knight’s “The K Chronicles” released its first season in early September. The semi-autobiographical sitcom, starring Lamorne Morris of “New Girl” as lead Keef Knight, rounded out its initial season with a short and sweet run consisting of eight 8 half-hour episodes. The show follows Keef, who is on the brink of his big break as a cartoonist when he finds himself on the receiving end of a traumatic altercation with local police. The images of the racially profiled Keef, tackled to the ground and surrounded by police, guns drawn, are nearly as provoking as the nonchalant reaction of Keef’s peers immediately after, which is also a thematic through line of the season. 

In the midst of racial tensions peaking in the United States, it is an undoubtedly timely release. The problem is, “Woke” is far too aware of this. The series cycles through a bevy of social ailments, ping-ponging from the priority of animals over human life, to classism, back to racism and police brutality. And while, at times, “Woke” has profound things to say about the current social and political climate of the United States, the show often feels overwhelmed by its own mission statement. 

From pilot to season finale, the show addresses the complicated space of the Black no man’s land — awareness among acquiescence. Keef starts the series obviously aware of social stigma but not preoccupied with it. When Ayana (Sasheer Zamata) implies early on that Keef’s widely popular comic is subversively tackling race, Keef makes it abundantly clear that it wasn’t his intention to do so, asking, “Why is that folks of color always have to stand for something?” This question is asked and repurposed throughout the season, and the mentality is replicated to far more extreme degrees in Keef’s white peers. It is this conflation between Keef’s own complacency and the complacency of those around him that finds the show challenging this ideology on both sides of the aisle in an attempt to hold everyone accountable.

The problem is, the tools with which the show addresses these issues are often dull and ineffective. The integration of animation and live action is an interesting way to externalize Keef grappling with “becoming woke,” but more often than not, the animation is stilted and inconsistent. Stylistically, there is an odd mix of hyperrealism and 2D comiclike figures that aren’t exactly pleasant to look at. There is really no rhythm or rhyme to the zany cartoons; one moment, Keef is hounded by graphics on billboards on a busy San Francisco street, and the next, he’s drenched in the silence of an illustration-filled comic shop. 

This also complicates the pacing of the narrative. The appearance of these cartoons seems to be a benchmark in the series, so it would follow that their disappearance would adhere to the same logic. But the cartoons’ general underuse makes it unclear to what degree audiences are supposed to use the animation as a litmus test for Keef’’s inner turmoil. Their unexpected interjections can bear the weight of adding tension to a scene, but more often than not, they simply don’t reach their full potential.

That isn’t to say the animation is entirely ineffective, as it offers valuable insight into the complicated arguments the show is making about Blackness. The issue arises in the simple fact that the show isn’t short on a barrage of external factors that arise in Keef’s life following his encounters with the police. Rather than creating a consistent framework to approach these trials, the animation’s inconsistencies derail a lot of the work the show is trying to accomplish. In short, “Woke” struggles immensely to find balance — an odd mix of too heavy- and too light-handed. 

To its credit, “Woke” is also far from lacking in stellar performances. Morris is an expert in his portrayal of Keef, navigating with precision the channels of playing a Black man newly chafing at the oppressive seams of systemic racism. Ayana and Clovis (T. Murph), who initially play like narrative foils, are a dynamic duo, and the development of their friendship is a joy to watch. Blake Anderson’s Gunther also sees the “Workaholics” star’s welcomed return to sitcom. And that’s not even mentioning the star-studded performers who lent their voice to Keef’s imaginary friends. The players work well with their material, and the assemblage of its cast alone makes “Woke” worth the watch. 

One thing is for certain: “Woke” is well aware of the broad scope of material it attempts to tackle, and with an inspiring cliffhanger, it isn’t absurd to think quite a few people will be waiting in the wings for a second season.

Contact Areyon Jolivette at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ar_e_yon.