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In Hulu’s ‘Woke,’ Waking Up to Racism Is a Lot Like Going Crazy

The new Hulu comedy “Woke” has two casts, the one you see and the one you only hear. The invisible performers have more star power than the regular cast, though you have to pay fairly close attention to the credits to find that out.

The mouthy green trash can? That’s Cedric the Entertainer. The T-shirt complaining about “this white woman inside of me”? Lil Rel Howery. Those friendly malt liquor bottles? Nicole Byer and Eddie Griffin. The high-pitched, nagging, black felt marker? J.B. Smoove.

That might make “Woke” (premiering Wednesday) sound like a big-budget cartoon feature, but it’s a modest live-action sitcom. The occasional intrusions by animated objects represent the voices that suddenly appear inside the head of a young Black cartoonist, Keef (Lamorne Morris), after his complacent San Francisco life is thrown off course by a hostile encounter with the police. Over the course of eight episodes, his forced, often reluctant awakening to the realities of race will cost him a syndication deal and a relationship, and lead to a beating by a large man in a koala suit, among other things.

“Woke” isn’t the only show made before the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, that will receive a scrutiny its makers couldn’t have predicted. But as a low-key, largely amiable comedy that spends as much time critiquing — or gently mocking — wokeness as it does affirming it, it’s in a particularly tricky place.

If the show manages to maneuver through its self-planted minefield fairly nimbly, and maintain a moderate but comfortable level of amusement, much of the credit goes to the perfectly cast Morris, best known for his seven seasons on “New Girl.” He’s an expert at projecting an affable complacency that comes out of good-naturedness rather than entitlement, and his wounded, crotchety reactions as Keef’s world turns upside down keep us invested even when the situations and jokes get wheezy.

The writing is sharpest in the pilot episode, credited to the show’s creators, the cartoonist Keith Knight — the show is “inspired by” his life and work — and the screenwriter Marshall Todd (“Barbershop”). It introduces Keef’s roommates, Gunther (Blake Anderson of “Workaholics”), whose idea for a start-up is selling “Peruvian coca” as a dietary supplement, and Clovis (T. Murph), a sunnily cynical player; like many elements of the show, they’re familiar types given just enough of a spin to feel fresh, if not exactly distinctive.

Clovis, who in T. Murph’s hands is the most consistently funny aspect of the show, provides a counterpoint to the hectoring voices of Keef’s new consciousness. As Keef begins to act out, blowing his syndication deal by going off-script at a launch event, Clovis pushes him to keep money top of mind. Clovis has his own opposite number, Ayana (Sasheer Zamata), an alternative press journalist who gives Keef a place to publish while pushing him to stay on his new track.

Keef’s journey — in which he has to wake up not just to racism and the specific dangers of police violence but also to standard sitcom verities about love and friendship — proceeds in a loose, fluid, slightly melancholy style that’s easy to sit through (helped by episode lengths as short as 21 minutes). Six of the episodes were directed by Maurice Marable, who was the primary director on the estimable “Brockmire.”

There’s a disconnect, though, between the facility of the filmmaking and the originality and force of the storytelling as the season progresses. In an episode in which San Francisco shuts down because of an escaped koala, the satire of privileged Bay Area sensibilities is directly on the nose. Subplots involving black-market sneakers and the indignities of the gig economy echo innumerable sitcoms at this point. (“The Last O.G.” and “Insecure,” to name two.)

And the animated objects, which are very present in the pilot, fade in and out of the action later on. Less of them may be a good thing, but if they were to be included at all — as a way of putting some cartoonishness into the cartoonist’s story — they could have been better integrated. More focus, overall, could have made something sharper out of the idea the talking trash can and marker represent, that Keef’s sudden wokeness can make him feel as if he were going crazy.

Having detoured through a koala crisis and an evening at an archly pretentious Black arts salon, “Woke” comes back around to the question of police profiling in a cliffhanger ending that leaves open the question of just how woke Keef is willing to get. Making a second season now, after the summer of 2020, would be an entirely different and more delicate proposition.

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