Keef Knight, the protagonist of Hulu’s surreal new social justice comedy Woke, talks to his markers. He’s a cartoonist, and to be clear, they talk back. The logo warps into a goateed face (voiced by J. B. Smoove) that heckles and bullies Knight into drawing something that matters. In San Francisco corner stores, Knight is wooed by bug-eyed bottles of malt liquor claiming to be replacements for therapy. A trash can whips him up until he tries to hurl it through the window of a nightmarishly gentrified barber shop. A photo of Knight himself, skin lightened to a sickly gray by a syndication company promoting his work, comes alive and helps goad Knight into a viral public breakdown about racism in America that threatens to end his career just as it’s about to begin. It all starts when a white cop throws him to the pavement for holding a stapler.
Prior to the police brutality, Knight—played by Lamorne Morris, finally getting his own sitcom after many years of carrying New Girl on his back—was broke, complacent, and liked to “keep it light.” His roomates are a goofy, ultimately-loveable-but-also-unsettling send-up of San Francisco: Clovis (T. Murph), a pathological liar who picks up a string of women who can’t tell that he’s not a famous Black athlete; and Gunther, a human drug rug (fittingly played by Blake Anderson) who sells “energy powder” that’s definitely not cocaine. Sasheer Zamata rounds out the cast as a lesbian journalist who is better than them (mostly). The cop punctures the affable apathy, and Knight is horrified by the everyday racism around him. “Houston, we have a problem,” says Clovis. “Man, you woke.” He pronounces the word like a personality disorder.
Woke is provocative; so is Keef Knight. After literally gnawing posters at a conference in a fit of righteous mania, he goes and gets himself canceled. (“I got canceled when I was 12,” his Australian artist girlfriend tells him.) Each 22-minute episode takes on at least one of the issues America, and San Francisco in particular, like to walk past quickly, looking resolutely ahead. Like homelessness. Also, liberal white women fetishizing Black men, and wealthy Americans’ tendency to lavish attention and money on everything but the people suffering right in front of them. Which sounds preachy, but the show is too weird for that. At one point Knight gets punched in the face by a person dressed as a koala to honor Kubby, an escaped zoo animal who was rumored to be able to code and understand sign language but was then murdered by a police officer who put him in a chokehold. Funny, surreal, but only a little stranger than Harambe. Adding just a few extra degrees of strangeness to San Francisco in 2020 turns out to be an effective way to skewer almost anything in a way that’s enjoyable but also makes it feel like you’re chafing inside your own skin.
Knight chafes. He is almost never where he wants to be. At a prestigious conference, he’s reduced to screaming “I am the sausage!” At a weird and woozy Oakland art salon, he scribbles over his own work in the bathroom in a panicked attempt to get another artist’s approval. He becomes a rideshare driver, and passengers are drunkenly necking, chicken-wing-gnawing terrors. He takes the bus, and he gets trapped inside. That’s the comedy, of course, but it’s also an illustration of the systems Knight finds himself trapped in. Racism follows him like a slapstick monster with a thousand faces. Woke is a show that mixes its chuckles and good-natured guffaws with moments that leave you squirming, and it only eases the tension on some of them. Knight squirms (and, eventually, snaps) right along with you.
It’s important that Knight doesn’t start out a social justice warrior. He doesn’t even want to be woke. He tries to throw away his new reality with its talking inanimate objects and omnipresent systemic oppression multiple times. (Seriously, that marker spends a lot of time in the trash.) He behaves just like regular people do in real life when information is too uncomfortable to incorporate into their worldview. The point Woke makes is that you don’t get to do that and stay whole. Knight can’t draw crowd-pleasingly mundane comic strips any more. He can’t smile along while a cop offers him a phony apology. His options are to stew inside his own skull while his marker berates him into a nervous breakdown or to act out. Knight never gets to go home again. It is painful and, as his friends said from the very beginning, a problem.
By rising to meet the grinding everyday horrors of being Black in America with absurdity, Woke presents a kind of solution. The system is absurd. You can’t capture its essence if you cling to the norms it’s taught you to adhere to, and you certainly can’t fight it that way. Spoilers: Knight blows up his life twice, first by sabotaging his own career and then by flicking beer at a cop who promised to arrest him if he did it. While he’s sitting in jail—one of the tensest moments in the whole show, a culmination of an eight-episode breakdown arc—Knight smirks. That smirk is Woke all over.
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