Hulu's Woke and the season-long pilot problem: Review
Pilot episodes are really hard to get right. There’s so much a good pilot needs to do: Introduce a group of characters and establish their relationships to each other, place those characters in a vivid and compelling universe with clearly delineated rules, and set up a central, ongoing conflict that will drive the story. Plenty of great shows had to overcome mediocre pilots (classic example: 30 Rock), while countless other series pour everything they have into an excellent pilot, leaving the creative tank empty for the second episode and beyond (see: every Lost rip-off ever).
Even in this disruption-happy era of Peak Screen TV — where shows can categorize themselves as everything from “a feature film in 18 parts” to “quick bites” — stories have to start somewhere. Pilots are inevitable. But in recent years, a troubling number of series have attempted to circumvent these challenges by turning their pilot into a season-long endeavor, using multiple episodes to convey What This Show Is About rather than getting it done in 30 or 60 minutes. Recent offenders include HBO’s Perry Mason, Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This, and now Hulu’s Woke, a clever comedy about one man's struggle to come to terms with his Blackness that leaves its hero in existential limbo for far too long.
Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris) is a San Francisco-based cartoonist on the verge of a big break: His comic strip Toast -N- Butter is about to hit syndication. (Woke, premiering September 9, is based on the life and art of cartoonist Keith Knight, creator of The K Chronicles.) Keef prefers to “keep it light” in his art, eschewing the pressure to have his anthropomorphic breakfast food characters explore issues like race and class. “Why is it that as people of color, we’re always having to stand for something or, you know, say something in our work?” he muses nervously. “I’m just a cartoonist.”
Keef’s lived by a don’t-rock-the-boat philosophy his whole life. Then one afternoon he’s mistaken for a mugging suspect by the cops, who corner him at gunpoint and violently throw him to the pavement. It’s a third-eye-opening moment, as all those truths Keef has been repressing for years about being Black in America start demanding his attention… through talking inanimate objects. “We’ve been tryin’a holla at your ass for a minute,” drawls a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor (voiced by Eddie Griffin). “Now you can finally hear us!” Adds another 40 (voiced by Nicole Byer), “Buckle up, n-----! This ride ain’t for the weak!” (Woke has assembled a top-notch voice cast for its talking objects, including JB Smoove, Cedric the Entertainer, Keith David, Jack McBrayer, and Sam Richardson.)
It’s a funny, promising conceit, and it arrives about 12 minutes into Woke’s first episode. A reasonable viewer might assume that Keef would spend the rest of the pilot and possibly the second episode questioning his sanity and trying to pretend nothing has changed, before finally accepting his new magical reality. Of course, Keef will ultimately come to a life-changing realization — people of color have to stand for something because society gives them no other choice — and then Woke’s real storytelling can begin.
Instead, Woke spends its 8-episode season nudging Keef toward his epiphany, all the while making necessary but not particularly interesting discoveries about the variety of micro- and macro-aggressions Black people face every day. The publishers lighten Keef’s skin in his author photo. A wealthy white woman pays Keef to attend her cocktail party, where the guests want to talk to him about reparations and O.J. Simpson. The city comes to a halt when a koala escapes from the zoo, but residents can’t muster up the outrage to protest police brutality. It’s all valid, but well-worn, territory. As Keef’s roommate Clovis (the scene-stealing T. Murph) gripes, “Now we gotta hear about it because all this s--- is new to you? Come on, man!”
The best scenes in Woke are between Keef and his roommates — pragmatic ladies’ man Clovis, and socially-conscious stoner Gunther (Workaholics’ Blake Anderson). Clovis chooses not to get worked up about what he sees as the intractable reality of systemic racism; instead, he looks for ways that he can manipulate society’s problematic attitudes for his own benefit. When Keef’s new art project, “Black People For Rent,” receives some troubling validation, Clovis puts the slogan on t-shirts. “Blackness should not be a commodity,” frets Keef. “But it’s the original commodity,” Clovis replies with mesmerizing equanimity.
At one point in episode 4, Keef, Gunther, and Clovis are hanging out at a bar, and Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” starts thumping over the noise of the crowd. “Hey, y’all wanna play ‘who’s gonna say the n-word’ game?” says Clovis with a grin. Keef and Gunther don’t want to play — the game shouldn’t even exist! — but they can’t help themselves. Will it be the white dude in the Brooks Brothers suit? The banker playing pool? The guy that looks like Macaulay Culkin? It’s a small but authentic moment, funny and resonant and real. I look forward to more like it in season 2… if Woke gets a season 2. Not everything does, especially today; just ask the aforementioned I Am Not Okay With This. It would be a shame if Hulu closed the book on Keef when he finally had something to say. Grade: B-