A Black cartoonist experiences an awakening about racism even in liberal San Francisco in “Woke,” a Hulu series that pairs eccentric humor and characters with its timely real-world echoes. Based on the work of cartoonist Keith Knight, the show develops a bit slowly but deftly straddles the line between weightier matters and mining its sillier side.
Without giving too much away, the protagonist Keef (“New Girl’s” Lamorne Morris) has an unfortunate encounter with the police, one that leaves him understandably shaken. The problem is that he’s on the verge of a syndication deal for his comic strip – which doesn’t deal with race at all, leaving the marketing folks excited about his “crossover index” – and when he begins bringing social activism into his work, he’s warned that “woke” rhymes with “broke.”
Introduced saying he’s “just a cartoonist” and wants to “keep it light,” Keef’s heightened awareness makes him more sensitive about being the only African American at a party and having a clueless White guy ask for his view on reparations as an icebreaker. It also complicates a new relationship.
Developed by Knight with Marshall Todd, and overseen by Jay Dyer, “Woke” derives much of the comedy from Keef’s roommates Clovis and Gunther (T. Murph and Blake Anderson, respectively), who are both quirky and genuinely funny. When not helping him strategize about his career, they have their own adventures, while engaging in “Seinfeld”-ian conversations about things like lying to meet women or whether you can ignore inconvenient truths in the same way you would the “Star Wars” prequels. (“Jar Jar happened,” Gunther says.)
Keef thus balances the impulse to advocate for social justice against pragmatic concerns about paying the rent, in the same way “Woke” oscillates between race and more traditional sitcom preoccupations, mostly about single guys dating in the big city.
Thanks to its flights of fancy built around Keef’s cartooning, “Woke” does keep things relatively light compared to some programs that have touched on similar themes, but the messages about race, policing and the pressure to be “just a cartoonist” still come through.
The plot advances at an unhurried pace, but that’s one of the luxuries streaming offers. And operating in the rarefied confines of Hulu, the show should have the opportunity to keep the lights on, and the conversation going, potentially for a good long time.
“Woke” premieres Sept. 9 on Hulu.