'Woke' executive producers Keith Knight and Anthony King break down the satire, conspiracy, and celebrity activism in Season 2.
A lot has changed in the time between Seasons 1 and 2 of Hulu comedy Woke, both on-screen and off.
The first season, which launched in full on Sept. 9, 2020, began with cartoonist Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris) becoming a victim of racial profiling and police brutality, and ended with him being given a media platform as an activist. That storyline played out for audiences after they had experienced a summer of real-life activism being ratcheted up after the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. Since then, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has continued, but cries for reckoning around other racial, political, and societal issues have been amplified, as well.
Woke was developed years before it premiered, so while its Season 1 story felt ripped from the headlines, it was not specifically so. When the team behind the show was planning its second season, though, they purposely paid close attention to how the culture and conversation was shifting around wider issues.
"We saw this shift in the corporate relationship to wokeness, and to the cultural relationship to wokeness, both in there being more awareness of all these issues, but also an uncomfortable appropriation of them," Season 2 showrunner Anthony King tells Metacritic. "And we were starting to see the leaders of those movements becoming celebrities and [there were] just so many interesting questions about, 'What does it mean when these movements become popular?'"
Season 2 sees Keef, who is based on real-life artist Keith Knight (who is also an executive producer on the show), struggling to determine what kind of activist he wants to be — or should be — as his star rises.
"The elevator pitch for this character is he's the Charlie Brown of activism, and the question we had this season was, 'What happens when Charlie Brown becomes the the most popular kid in school?' He doesn't handle it as well as maybe someone else would," Knight tells Metacritic.
After giving one inspiring speech in the first season, he is suddenly called upon to deliver more, and he is also encouraged to expand into additional causes. When he can't think of anything profound, his friends suggest to "go full Common," aka saying uplifting but vague things in a rhythmic tone. It hits the right notes for a lot of the audience, and Keef's social following grows when Common shares his speech. (For the record, King says there are people on the show close to Common, and they told him about this story point ahead of time and he thought it was funny.)
But in other moments, Keef won't be as successful.
"You may be woke in one way, but something that someone said in the [writers'] room was, 'You can never be woke enough,'" King says. "There's always something else to learn. We wanted the season to ask all of the questions and not do anything that had an easy answer."
While the first season was much more specifically steeped in the real Knight's life, in that it was "based on a real-life incident that triggered the whole idea of him having his third eye opened," he says, Season 2 still borrows from his life in some important ways.
"I was navigating this newfound attention and this newfound I don't know if it's fame or just these opportunities, and having people whispering in your ear like, 'Woke is no longer broke,'" he recalls. It's the "overall idea of weighing your work, and the idea of promotion and celebrity and stuff, [and] the question of making a living but also doing this work, like, 'Am I taking advantage of this?' There was a time when mom and pop shops existed: You had a business and that business sustained itself, and now there's always just absurd pressure to get bigger, have more followers, if you're not getting bigger you're not doing enough."
Keef's platform doesn't just grow when it comes to his audience, but also his backing. He is given a large sum of money to go out and make real change, which allows the show to comment on how capitalism can affect that change.
"In Season 1 a lot of things happened to him. And so, Season 2, he is making the decisions. He is making the decisions, and then is reaping the either benefits or bad things that happen. That is a big step for the character," Knight notes.
"We wanted to look at Keef being given all this money and the pitfalls that you can fall into with that, but then [Sasheer Zamata's character] Ayana [is] someone who is facing, 'Do I need to be poor and working and suffering forever to be noble, or is there another path that is equally as noble but is not as not as difficult?' I don't know that we know the right answer those things, but those are the things we want to explore," adds King.
While Keef and Ayana represent different approaches on their own, the show doesn't stop there. It also has Clovis (T. Murph), a character who has already encouraged Keef to keep things light whenever he can. In Season 2, you learn why: by meeting Clovis' dad (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a man who abandoned his family for his own causes. In exploring these characters' "very different views of what activism should be trying to accomplish," King says, it helps show that the views of Black people are not a monolith and also offers an opportunity to open the conversation up to the audience.
"To me, any satire that is too easily or too obviously on one side is not satire anymore, it's just preaching. And I think a show like 'Woke,' for people who haven't seen it, could [be thought of] as very one-sided and preachy. And so, we really wanted to muddy it up," King explains.
Case in point: a storyline that sees free shoes given to the homeless population in the show, only for those shoes to be equipped with technology that can potentially help and harm them at the same time.
"We're riffing on concerns and conspiracies," King notes. "In Season 1, the storyline you're dealing with is complex and emotionally fraught, but not as intellectually complex in that the police brutality issue in this country, we know how we feel about it and how it was really affecting people. When we moved into these other issues in Season 2, there were more open questions."
"Obviously homelessness is just something that has plagued San Francisco as one of its big issues [for years] and the tech is more of a modern-day issue for San Francisco. And I just knew that I wanted to incorporate both issues," Knight adds. "I remember an idea that someone had a backpack that charged their computer and did WiFi and everything — just the idea of what would happen. I think it's the balance between commerce and being good, begin decent. So, the idea that there's always an angle — there has to be some money being made — that's the thing that I really wanted to have bad things to say about."
In the first season finale of Woke, there was a sequence of (thankfully not real) potential death scenarios for Keef, who at the time was weighing how to handle the next steps in dealing with the police after being assaulted and then sued by them. In the second season finale of Woke, death comes again for Keef (the episode is literally titled "Kill Keef Knight"). On the one hand, there is a moment he is in real physical danger (which Knight shares is based on something that actually happened to him at a slideshow in Germany), but on the other, there is a metaphorical sense of eliminating his public persona to pass the microphone to someone else.
While the theme of death at the end of a season should not be taken as foreshadowing that the show will suddenly switch genres drastically and bring about a dramatic end to the character, it is an important reminder of what it is like to be a Black man in the world today, Knight says.
"One of the aspects of being Black in America and having a voice that not everybody may be excited about is that you are in danger. And so, I think that that shouldn't be lost. If you don't stay in your place, you could be looked upon as a target," he explains. "I remember doing a strip about how being a Black male, your midlife crisis comes at a much earlier age, and the character in the show is right about that age that I wrote that comic strip. Listen, if cops decide it's your time, it can happen. You see Black folks can be in their apartment and somebody could show up and take them out. It's depressing to see and hear, but that's the reality of what we deal with."