This may be the exact best time or the exact worst time for a show like Hulu’s “Woke” to be released. The Black Lives Matter protests this summer have made more people ready to talk about systemic racism against Black people.
But are they ready to laugh about it?
Aside from one very distracting gimmick, “Woke” is generally a very clever show that tries to be broadly funny as well as truthful. All eight episodes of the first season premiered Wednesday.
Keith “Keef” Knight co-created the show, inspired by his experiences as a Black cartoonist living in San Francisco. In the show, LaMorne Morris (“The New Girl”) plays an amiable cartoonist named Keef, who draws a newspaper comic strip called “Toast ‘n’ Butter” that’s about, well, a talking piece of toast and his best friend, a talking pat of butter. “Toast ‘n’ Butter” shies away from any serious themes (“Keep it light” is Keef’s motto), and its innocuous charm is about to land him a national syndication deal.
Keef's "Keep it light" approach to life is shaken when he's mistaken for a mugger and accosted by police, guns drawn, who throw him to the ground and handcuff him. When Keef gets to his feet, he’s a different man, suddenly realizing that San Francisco isn’t the post-racial progressive haven that he thought it was, and that he's not somehow exempt from its racial inequities.
This new awareness manifests itself in “Woke” by having inanimate objects like trash cans, bus ads and especially Keef’s Magic marker start talking to him, railing about the injustices of the world that he had tried to ignore before. It’s a pretty silly flight of fancy that might have worked if “Woke” was entirely animated, but gets distracting in a live-action show. And it only makes sense for his marker (voiced by J.B. Smoove) to be talking to him, telling him he needs to stop selling out with “Toast ‘n’ Butter” and create something meaningful.
Much of the first season of “Woke” involves Keef’s attempt to trash "Toast 'n' Butter" and make that meaningful thing, against the advice of almost everyone around him. “You could have been a legend — John Legend,” his ex-agent tells him. “He did it right. First he got rich, then he got woke.”
It’s lines like that that make “Woke” work more than the talking trash-can slapstick. The hangout scenes of Keef with his roommates, the conniving player Clovis (T. Murph) and faux-hippie Gunther (Blake Anderson of “Workaholics”) have great chemistry. And former "Saturday Night Live” member Sasheer Zamata brings verve to her role as a Black alt-weekly journalist who alone seems to be cheering on Keef’s “come to Black Jesus” moment.
It’s also got a terrific soundtrack and a look that evokes the visual splendor of San Francisco (even though it was filmed in Vancouver). Made before this summer’s protests, “Woke” feels very much in conversation with them, and it manages to walk the line of being funny without trivializing the issues that it depicts. I want to see where Keef goes, and what he has to say, in future seasons.
Also on streaming: If you can get past the ultra-graphic violence in "The Boys” (and there’s a lot to get past), “The Boys” is a pretty smart and funny satire of the superhero genre. In the adaptation of Garth Ennis’ comic book series, which premiered some of its second season last Friday, The Seven are a team of superheroes idolized by the American public, despite the fact that their leader Homelander is really a preening monster, and the team was secretly created by a government-corporate cabal to serve its own interests.
Acorn TV’s new comedy series “The Other One” is a family comedy, sort of. A man dies, leaving behind a wife and daughter — and ANOTHER wife and daughter living a few miles away. The four women, all very different, end up leaning on each other as they learn to move on with their lives. It premiered Monday.