The Wilds Season 2 & TV’s War On “Woke” Characters

Welcome to “What’s Good,” where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy.
Photos: courtesy of Hulu, Amazon Studios, HBO MAX.
What’s Good? Usually this column’s opening question isn’t so existential. I would love this month’s answer to be simple. I would love to say, “The Wilds is good!” and keep it moving. I would love to say that the mistakes made in The Wilds Season 2 didn’t remind me of two other shows that are also almost good which has forced me to spend the next 2,000 words unpacking all three shows and their failed attempts at “woke” plots. I would love to say that the shift in television to include more progressive characters — ones who aren’t just straight, cis, and white — has resulted in better, more robust, and more nuanced storylines. And in some cases that is true. The Wilds Season 1 is a good example of that shift. The Amazon Prime series is about a group of teens who think they’ve endured a real plane crash and have to survive on an island alone (think Lost meets Yellowjackets — even though the latter came after) only to discover that things aren’t exactly as they seem. The first season featured a diverse group of teen girls whose differences (from Black overachieving twins Nora and Rachel, to Martha and Toni, a pair of Indigenous kids from the rez, to a closeted church-going popular blonde named Shelby) were mined for riveting and addictive material that dug deep into their archetypes but didn’t exploit them. 
The same cannot be said for Season 2. The series has evolved since — SPOILER — the audience (and the show’s lead Leah, who is by far the most boring character) discovered that there was another island full of stranded boys unwillingly participating in the same social experiment. This season, released earlier this month, heavily follows what the boys’ time on their island looked like and how they survived  — socially and physically. The boys’ camp is also chock-full of archetypal characters like the jock (Kirin, played by Charles O’Connor), the sensitive nerd (Nicholas Coombe as Josh), the charismatic popular guy (Seth, a eerily on-point Alex Fitzalan), and the fashionable gay kid (Miles Gutierrez doing his best as Ivan). It’s Ivan’s storyline that is the most frustrating, and it’s why I can’t definitively say that The Wilds is good. What The Wilds does with Ivan, an out gay Black boy navigating high school armed with razor sharp wit and Gen-Z-ified vocabulary, is turn him into a cautionary tale for wokeness. He isn’t a person. He’s a Twitter thread about “triggers” and “safe spaces” and other terms that Republicans love to make fun of that are actually rooted in activism. He’s Che Diaz from the Sex And The City reboot And Just Like That.
I know, I know, shots fired. Che Diaz, played by Sara Ramirez, was pretty much universally hated. Che is a nonbinary stand up comedian who is also Carrie’s podcast boss and later, a love interest for Miranda. The character was so loathed, there were entire essays devoted to why they suck. And then entire counter pieces written in defense of them (the best those arguments could come up with was essentially “they suck but, like, yay representation!”). And therein lies the problem with Ivan, Che, and even Sasheer Zamata’s character Ayana on the unironically-titled Hulu comedy Woke. In the show, Ayana is a queer, Black journalist who works for an alternative newspaper, and her wokeness is her entire personality (Zamata shines in a role unworthy of her talent).
All three characters are great on paper: queer, non-white, there to disrupt the status quo. But in reality, they are just examples of how recent mainstream television has no idea what to do with its “woke” characters (the word has been so bastardized it’s almost been stripped of its original meaning, which, to recap, just means being “alert to racism, injustice and discrimination"). Their identities aren’t simply facets of their humanity. Their queerness, or Blackness, or both, effectively strip them of their depth. In an effort to perform representation, the shows have created caricatures instead of characters. In the case of Ivan and Che, their writers have villainized the very personality traits that are supposed to make them progressive. These “woke” characters should be good, and each of their shows have a lot of good things going for them (yes, even And Just Like That), but instead, they are hollow, uninspired and devoid of the nuance characters like this deserve.

What The Wilds does with Ivan, an out gay Black boy navigating high school armed with razor sharp wit and Gen-Z-ified vocabulary, is turn him into a cautionary tale for wokeness. He isn’t a person. He’s a Twitter thread.

Where Does The “Good” Go Bad? At this point in the column, I typically ask “who [insert show or character] is good for?” But honestly, the problem is that I have no idea who these characters are supposed to be for. And neither do their creators. I realize that I just compared The Wilds, And Just Like That, and Woke, three entirely different series that should have no business being in the same sentence, but the one thing they have in common is that they all are fumbling through attempts to depict queerness and wokeness (two things that can be mutually exclusive by the way). As a result, each show either at best disregards the humanity of their respective characters because of their progressive views, or at worst, they outright chastise them for being “woke.” 
In theory, The Wilds’ Ivan is a good character. He’s the kind of character that I wish we had more of decades ago. He’s out and proud. He’s socially conscious. He’s fiercely protective of his culture and his boyfriend Luke (the only dark-skinned Black person in the entire show). He stands up to white bullies and white authoritative figures. He’s “woke” in the way the word was intended. But his storyline takes a turn. In episode 6, we get a glimpse into Ivan’s life before the island. He and Kirin the jock go to the same high school. When Ivan discovers photos of Kirin’s beloved football coach wearing blackface, he exposes the coach to the school (naturally) and gets him fired. This series of events is written like Ivan is the big bad woke bully whose social justice scheming costs a poor blackface-wearing white man his job. Seriously. It gets worse. When Ivan discovers Kirin in a locker room crying over losing his coach, it’s Kirin who gets the sad backstory to explain away his bad behavior. The coach and his wife were the family Kirin never had. Cue violins. When Kirin gets angry, Ivan baits him repeatedly (I don’t love this phrasing, but it’s unfortunately how the show frames it) into calling him gay slurs. Specifically, Kirin calls Ivan a “woke [f-word].” Ivan was secretly recording the exchange on his phone and when he posts the video, Kirin gets expelled. 
Instead of digging into how easy it was to taunt Kirin into spewing slurs, the show paints Ivan as the villain. Ivan’s boyfriend Luke gives him a sanctimonious speech about how he’s letting “the fight” take over his life (like being Black and gay in this world isn’t an everyday fight) and how he’s forgotten how to just be (like that’s a choice). Ivan even ends up apologizing to Kirin, the popular blonde dude who called him a slur. The moral of the story seems to be that Ivan took this whole “woke” thing (you know, wanting people to be held accountable for their racist and homophobic actions) too far and that we should go easier on white people, OK! “Please feel bad for the white captain of the football team!,” The Wilds pleads with its audience. Ivan isn’t given childhood trauma as an excuse for his actions (which I will defend to the death) or any real motivation for his behavior other than that he’s Black and gay and on a mission to destroy white people! Ivan is turned into a villain for standing up for what he thinks is right. To me, that’s actually pretty heroic. 
Che Diaz’s road to being villainized is more justified. They are legitimately the worst. But I don’t think the And Just Like That writers did that on purpose. Che is the worst because they are just a bunch of buzzwords smushed together instead of a fully-formed human being. “From using the ‘Woke Moment’ button on their godawful podcast to using online lingo in verbal conversations, Che seems like they are a manifestation of an overzealous conservative who thinks nonbinary people are a particularly irritating Twitter account come to life,” a Sex and the City fan told The NY Post in a story called “Why Che Diaz from ‘And Just Like That’ is TV’s most hated character.” Another fan chimed in: “They’re not a character, but a prop.” 

Their identities aren’t simply facets of their humanity. Their queerness, or Blackness, or both, effectively strip them of their depth. In an effort to perform representation, the shows have created caricatures instead of characters.

This dehumanization is a trend in post-2020 television where “representation” is used as a marketing ploy and a hook to lure in marginalized viewers, but the shows seem to hate the characters they claim to be championing. In Woke, a show that is literally about how to accurately portray social activism in your work (it centers around New Girl’s Lamorne Morris as Keef Knight, a Black cartoonist having an awakening after an experience with police violence), still tends to fall short of handling the topic with fearlessness and care. Instead, Ayana is “the show’s closest approximation to a mascot for woke culture,” a Polygon review notes. “Sometimes the show positions her as a progressive foil to Keef’s reluctance to engage with issues around racism, but more often, Woke turns Ayana’s radicalism into the butt of jokes.”
What Would It Take For This To Actually Be Good? The thing is, all of the aforementioned shows and characters have so much potential. They all could be very good. I think the biggest issues are that these characters are written with a white, straight audience in mind. The Wilds tried to explain how problematic people get “canceled” (a topic only white people seem to care about) using Ivan as a stand-in for the “woke left” who apparently hand out cancellations on a whim without showing him any grace. And it’s not to say that there aren’t elements of wokeness that should be critiqued or made fun of. There absolutely are. But when these progressive stances aren’t depicted except for when they are being joked about or admonished, it sends a clear message about whose views, and whose lives, matter most. 
“It’s not that these aren’t very real issues, but the series’ observations are disseminated in uninspired theatrics,” Tambay Obenson writes in a review of Woke, but this sentence could apply to all three shows. And Just Like That resorted to over-the-top unfunny theatrics when it came to Che and their storylines instead of just letting them be a normal human who seemed even remotely real. And The Wilds tried to cram an after-school special about the dangers of being “woke” into Ivan’s storyline instead of unpacking how he lived and loved as a gay Black boy in his predominately white high school, which would have been far more interesting. Even if he had to deal with Kirin and his racist coach, there are ways to write their story without villainizing Ivan and making him APOLOGIZE (I will never get over this). 

Each show either at best disregards the humanity of their respective characters because of their progressive views, or at worst, outright chastises them for being “woke.”

In defense of Che Diaz, Sara Ramirez said in an interview with The New York Times, “I’m really proud of the representation that we’ve created. We have built a character who is a human being, who is imperfect, who’s complex, who is not here to be liked, who’s not here for anybody’s approval. They’re here to be themselves.” But did they build that character? Che Diaz isn’t really all that complex. Their whole standup was full of unfunny (I can’t stress this enough) platitudes about being queer. Their entire personality is whittled down to being a conduit for Carrie’s edgy career update and a vessel for which Miranda can run away from her marriage (Team Steve!). They actually exist for the audience’s approval and so the creators can pat themselves on the back for having a nonbinary character without actually doing the work to make that character believable. The same goes for Ivan. I don’t need to like these characters, but I do need to believe they could exist, not that they are AI bots created from an algorithm using the words “woke” and “queer.” 
There’s a scene in Woke where Ayana tells Keef that he’s “controversial just by existing” because he’s a Black cartoonist. He responds, “Why is it that as people of color we’re always having to stand for something or… you know, say something in our work? I’m just a cartoonist.” To which she says, “Because the world’s a racist, f*cked up place.” The world is a racist, f*cked up place and many non-white, queer character are controversial just by existing (look at the comment section of any casting announcement for a reboot starring a Black person in a traditionally white role) but their controversy doesn’t need to be their entire story. Their character can be so much more than their designations. 
What Else Is Good? 
•  Nuance is good! And taking a step back to process the divisive reactions to Kevin Samuels’ passing is necessary. Read Cheyenne M. Davis break down how we talk about bad men in death and “grief respectability.”
• This Is Us is so so so good even though it makes me WEEP every episode. There’s only one episode left, fam, and I am NOT OK.
• Rest! That’s it, that’s what’s good.
• As always, defunding the police.

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