Jeremy Likes TV

I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

Review: Awake

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Grade: A-

Quality network television is dying a quiet and sad death. What once was the home to seminal series like All In The Family, Hill Street Blues, M.A.S.H., Seinfeld, and NYPD Blue has in recent years been populated by one too many brain-dead reality shows or by carbon copies of safe and boring police procedurals [1]. If you want to find television’s best shows, you have to go to cable where series like Breaking Bad, Louie, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, and Justified live. This seismic shift has severely diminished the amount of risk that writers are willing to take when creating new series for the big networks since “risk” is often akin to “failure.” Just look at the landscape today and you’ll see that unique and original shows like Community or Parks And Recreation or Cougar Town struggle to survive while people gobble down pablum like Two And A Half Men and 2 Broke Girls and Glee in distressing numbers each week. Notice that I didn’t mention any quality network dramas in that struggling-to-survive list – that’s because there aren’t really aren’t any, save maybe Parenthood or The Good Wife, on occasion. And no one would ever accuse those shows of taking risks. That’s all thanks to risk aversion. I can pretty much guarantee that if Lost – one of the most popular and frequently-discussed series of the past decade – premiered on network television today it wouldn’t make it out of its first season. Audiences have been conditioned to expect safe and boring from network television and that’s why I’m convinced that NBC’s unique and demanding new drama Awake is doomed to failure. And that would be a damn shame.

Awake follows the story of police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter) in the aftermath of a car accident that’s caused Britten to create two fully realistic realities within his head: one in which his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, Terriers) survived the wreck but their teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette, Lost) perished, and the other where Rex survived but Hannah died. In each reality, which Britten differentiates between via a rubber band around his wrist – red for the Hannah reality and green for the Rex reality – Britten sees a therapist, although they differ in each world as well. Dr. John Lee (BD Wong, Law & Order: SVU) is the more confrontational psychiatrist in the Hannah reality while Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones, 24) is more supportive of Britten’s condition in the Rex reality. Both therapists, however, are surprised that Britten is unable to tell which reality is the true one. Along with seeing two different therapists, Britten also has two different partners in his police duties – Detective Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama, That 70s Show) in the red world and Detective Isaiah Freeman (Steve Harris, The Practice) in the green world. In both worlds, Britten and Freeman have been partners for years but in the red world, Freeman is being transferred to a different precinct and Vega has been newly promoted to detective, to use Britten’s words, in order to “babysit” him and report back on Britten to police brass. By contrast, in the green world Britten and Freeman remain partners while Vega is still a beat cop. As the episode goes by, Britten’s worlds seem to bleed into one another, in both a personal and professional capacity leading to the creation of a dreamlike state that wafts over a large portion of Awake’s running time.

That was a pretty daunting paragraph to read, wasn’t it? Your head hurt a little bit? It’s unsurprising because Awake is a fairly daunting show with a concept that’s not easy to grasp, but one that is rich with potential when given the chance. It’s to the show’s credit that, while it’s ostensibly about how we cope with grief, it never wallows in it. Structuring a series around a man who’s living in two different worlds where either his wife is dead or his son is dead could have been the ultimate downer if not played correctly but Awake never allows itself to do that. Isaacs does a wonderful job of portraying a man who’s on the edge [2] but is doing everything he can to keep his sanity in the face of unspeakable tragedy. The rest of the cast is just as solid and it’s a testament to the writing of creator Kyle Killen (Lone Star) that there’s no real learning curve present. The characters are clearly delineated throughout the hour and it’s clear who they are and what roles they play in Britten’s life by the time the first hour has been completed.

Awake does an incredible job of making the viewer feel just as disoriented – in a good way – as Britten’s condition does to him. While there are signifiers such as the red tint with which the Hannah reality is shot and the green tint that is used to shoot the Rex reality present, the constant drifting back and forth between the worlds – Britten will fall asleep in one and abruptly wake up in the other – gives the show a dreamlike, ethereal quality that’s not like anything else on television. Awake also establishes the dual worlds as Britten’s coping mechanism in much the same way that Hannah decides to quit her job and professes her desire for another baby with Britten [3] in the red world while Rex takes up tennis (the sport that Hannah played) and looks to his coach for maternal guidance in the green world. There is a lot going on in this one hour of well-crafted television, almost all of it good.

A popular discussion point among critics has been about how Awake is very similar in tone and subject matter to Killen’s failed 2010 Fox series Lone Star [4]. Duality in life is something that holds obvious interest to Killen but Lone Star seems to have been selected as a cautionary tale about Awake’s chances for survival. Lone Star lasted literally two episodes on Fox in September 2010 before unceremoniously being yanked from Fox’s schedule with the reason most often cited for its failure being that it was “too ambitious” and “too difficult” for audiences to grasp onto. To that end, Killen has attempted to make entry into Awake’s world [5] easier for viewers by making Britten a police detective, which allows the series to skate along the procedural line to a degree. However, instead of falling into the mold of the generic crime-dramas that populate network television, Awake’s pilot is structured so that Britten is investigating different cases in each reality, yet evidence from one bled into the other and allowed him to solve each case thanks to a realization from the other world. Going forward, by trying to spot each week which little detail is going to be the one to cross over into the opposite case, Awake could prove to be an interesting puzzle for audiences to solve.

As good as Awake is – and it’s very, very good – I fear that it’s just not going to attract an audience large enough for NBC to justify keeping it on the air for more than a few weeks. NBC itself is a fourth-place network that’s hemorrhaging viewers by the day and two different shows [6] have already failed in the Thursday at 10PM timeslot, although neither of them were as close to as good as Awake is. Its subject matter isn’t easy and the way it’s presented isn’t either. It’s challenging, though not as challenging as its concept may make it appear to be [7]. While the show is spurred by one man’s grief, again… it never wallows in it. If anything, it’s about embracing life even if it’s difficult to tell if that life is real or not. As Britten tells Dr. Lee late in the pilot, “If you’re telling me that the price of having them in my life is my sanity, that’s a price that I’m gladly willing to pay.” If Awake were on a cable network like, say, Showtime we’d probably talking about how it has the chance to become one of television’s next great dramas, so expertly is it crafted. But unfortunately it’s not airing on Showtime and it faces the unenviable task of trying to attract a largely apathetic audience to a difficult timeslot on a floundering network. It – and quality television by extension – needs your support. Like Britten, we need to create a reality where a show like Awake can survive. Let’s not get to the point where shows as good as Awake exist only in a dream world.

[1] CSI: Topeka and/or NCIS: Tucson are coming. Mark my words.
[2] Without spoiling anything, there’s a scene midway through the episode where Britten has a breakdown while unsure of which reality he’s in. It’s a stunning scene and is perhaps the best example of the power that a show like Awake can have.
[3] That he astutely notes she refers to as “he” subconsciously.
[4] Both were looked at by critics as the best network pilots of their respective fall seasons. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly.
[5] Or worlds, if you prefer.
[6] Prime Suspect and The Firm. Remember them? No? That’s probably why they got cancelled.
[7] Anecdotal evidence: My wife is a wickedly smart woman though, if you’d ask her, she’d probably tell you she prefers to just be able to sit back and watch a television show/movie rather than being challenged by one. She was hooked on Awake after watching the pilot, saying that she didn’t find it as challenging as much as she did very intriguing. So maybe it’s not as difficult a show to get into as I’m making it seem after all.

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Written by jeremylikestv

March 1, 2012 at 4:41 pm

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