Lamorne Morris spent seven seasons serving as the lovable oddball on Fox’s New Girl, carving out a space for himself in a straightforward sitcom with a predominately white cast. His character, Winston Bishop, found his footing in later seasons, navigating his duties as an over-involved cat dad, enjoying a string of riotously bad relationships, and getting involved in the shenanigans of his adorkable roommates. Winston Bishop might’ve never amounted to more than the token Black guy on a show that struggled to hone his voice early on, but Morris wouldn’t let that happen. His new series, Hulu’s surreal comedy Woke, feels like a symbolic reward for that representational effort. It’s certainly the kind of show Morris’ limitless talents deserve.
Woke, based on the life and work of artist Keith Knight, sees Morris playing a Black man enjoying a comfortable rise to stardom thanks to his popular comic before suddenly, and violently, being introduced to the prejudice and racism he’s side-skirted his entire life. Despite living in a progressive city (this time, San Francisco) and playing by an unwritten set of rules that allow him to occupy white spaces — a boardroom, a dinner party for the one percent, a gentrified apartment complex he hopes to move into with his equally privileged girlfriend — Keef still somehow finds himself the target of racial discrimination.
Worse, he’s profiled by a trigger-happy group of police officers who mistake him for a robbery suspect and assault him in the middle of a busy square, with dozens of onlookers, in broad daylight. He’s left bruised, disoriented, listening to his white roommate — a hippie obliviously creating a new energy drink company from purified cocaine — rail at the injustice. It’s all bizarre and surreal and completely ridiculous for someone like Keef, who’s kept his head down until this point, happy to turn a blind eye if it gives him a leg up. And that’s before the inanimate objects start talking to him. This all goes down in the show’s first episode and what follows is a brutally honest, relatable, darkly comedic look at race relations during a time when we’re in desperate need of more nuanced takes within that dialogue.
Woke tackles everything from gentrification and interracial relationships to intersectionality, toxic masculinity, problematic allyship, and the aftermath of trauma, but it keeps things fresh, inventive. It’s less a politically correct guide to identifying and fighting racism (though you’ll undoubtedly learn something you didn’t know from Keef’s journey) and more a Through The Looking Glass odyssey filled with cartoonish bottles of malt liquor and sidewalk trashcans directing us on a path of enlightenment.
Or, at the very least, directing Keef, who can’t decide whether he should embrace the label of “Black artist” or fight to separate his work from the color of his skin and the bias that comes with it, spending most of the show’s early episodes raging against assuming the burden of using his art to call out social justice issues. He teeters between benefitting from his carefully cultivated image — a well-dressed Black man, a starving artist, just trying to draw toast and butter cartoons that make white people laugh — and using it to Trojan Horse his way into these guarded spaces before detonating a reality-altering bomb that makes these people woefully aware of their own complicity.
That might mean dropping a satirical “Black People For Rent” cartoon in the alt newspaper owned by Sasheer Zamata’s Ayana. Or taking to the podium during a Con to point out examples of Black erasure in his work before getting into a screaming match with his own cardboard cutout as his friends Gunther (Blake Anderson) and Clovis (T. Murph) worriedly look on. Morris does well enough to make this early exploration of his character’s internal dilemma interesting, whether that means he’s the token Black guy at a fancy party for white people that puts off some strong Get Out vibes or accidentally Black-facing his white girlfriend during an artistic presentation filled with cultural tastemakers.
But Morris, and the show as a whole, start to solidify during the last half of the season, particularly the last two episodes which see Keef, Clovis, and Gunther attending the above-mentioned party and trekking across the city for a meeting that ends up being canceled for a surreal reason that matches the rest of the show. The series hits the right frequency when these three men, all from different backgrounds with wildly opposing views, start to hash out the micro-aggressions, the prejudice, the privilege, and their own culpability within this system they’ve come to accept. We laugh along as Gunther tries to hype himself up for a boundary-pushing sexual adventure or when Clovis’ come-ons continuously get shot down by Zamata’s Ayana, but it’s when all three men encourage, criticize, and observe each other’s behavior that we learn the most from this woke-a**comedy.
Still, as Keef comes to learn, there’s always more to be done and it would’ve been nice if this series had committed to treating Black women with the same respect as it does Black men. Zamata doesn’t earn nearly enough screen time, and Keef’s early interactions with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend are symbolic of a larger problem with how Black women are devalued in relationships — something made worse when Keef begins hooking up with a privileged, carefree white artist named Adrienne (Rose McIver). Clovis, though the show’s best form of comedic relief, doesn’t undergo the same kind of needed transformation as his cartoonist bro, beginning the series as a womanizing con-artist with a complex and ending it by… befriending one of the women he shamelessly pursued all season. (I suppose seeing women as equals worthy of your friendship instead of a quick f*ck is progress on some level.)
But even with these missteps, there’s a lot to love about how unapologetically fearless Woke is, both creatively and thematically. It’s a meaningful piece of television in an age when that can be a rare thing.
Hulu’s ‘Woke’ streams on Wednesday, September 9.