How “Awake” Could Have A Shot At Surviving

Worst case scenario: Awake’s pilot is an amazing 45 minutes of television. Best case scenario: it’s the beginning of a show that has the potential to help redefine the form and function of network serial drama.

Awake’s premise is deceptively easy to explain: Detective Michael Britten and his family get in a car accident. After the crash, Britten’s reality is seemingly split into two worlds, one where only he and his wife survived, and another where only he and his son did. Awake juggles these two universes effortlessly, throwing up signposts, such as Britten’s color coded wrist bands, so the audience will know what reality he’s currently experiencing. Still, a question constantly plagues the viewer: what is real?

I hope Awake’s answer is “you’ll never know”. In a meeting with one of his therapists (Britten has two, one in each reality), Britten confesses that he has no desire to ever know what’s real if it means he has to lose one of his family members. This is one of a few lines in the pilot that suggests Awake might not be out to solve the mystery that underlies its narrative. Instead, Awake might ask us to simply accept Britten’s curious circumstances as part of the storyworld in the same way that we accept True Blood’s Bon Temps is full of vampires and werepanthers and that The River’s Amazon is permeated by magic. I think this approach, if taken, will help Awake keep its head above the ratings water.

As I’ve discussed in recent posts and as others have endlessly debated, the recent flood of mythology driven shows on network TV is a double-edged sword. When it works, it’s amazing. When it fails, it’s also amazing, but in more of a train wreck kind of way. While Awake’s creator Kyle Killen  is clearly a smart guy (his other show about a man with a double life, Lone Star, was short-lived but outstanding), and would probably be capable of spinning out a complicated mythology, I’m hoping he’s chosen not to. Awake as a mythology-based show would be difficult to sustain. How long could they keep the mystery engaging without coming to a conclusion? Awake as a procedural with a twist, on the other hand, is much easier to maintain.

Much of the pilot is devoted to two cases that Britten is trying to solve, one in each reality. His access to both realities becomes a kind of gift, a fresher version of the psychic ability that pops up in many cop dramas, that allows him insight into each of the crimes. As shows like CSI and NCIS demonstrate, the procedural angle is much more accessible for most viewers, which could help Awake find an audience. This doesn’t mean Awake has to lose its edge or intelligence, though. I think those qualities are part of the show’s DNA and will shine all the brighter couched in a procedural, which allows for more room for character development than a complicated mythology that demands as much attention as the characters.

Luckily, Awake has a deep well of complicated characters, situations, and relationships to plumb. To me, a character driven show about what  happens to a family dynamic when that family is split into two realities sounds much more interesting than answering why Britten is or isn’t crazy. I hope Awake is strong enough to not listen to the fans that clamor for the mystery to be solved, and if it chooses to ignore them, I hope the fans will be smart enough to realize what a good choice it was.

Other thoughts

Awake’s pilot is still free to watch online here.

Britten’s son, Rex, is a nice change from the likes of Josh on Terra Nova. Rex  is still a goofy name, though.

Jason Isaacs is an outstanding actor (duh), and I’m excited to see him on the small screen not playing a bad guy.

I have a major girl crush on Laura Allen. Who doesn’t, though?

Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model

I Want To Believe

(After reading, check out my follow up post: “If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?“)

It all started, like so many televisual things do, with The X-Files. The supernatural horror show was the first to pioneer the use of an intricate, series-spanning mythology in prime time television.

It was ambitious. Prior to the 1980′s, TV plots were all episodic, neatly wrapped up by the end of the 30 minute time block. In the ’80s, some shows began experimenting with seriality, creating stories that arced over several episodes. But the concept of creating season long, or as it turned out in the case of The X-Files, a nine season long narrative, was unheard of.

It was risky. A complex serial storyline makes it much harder for new viewers to tune in, and in a format where viewership is perhaps the most important factor, it’s a big gamble. Like the “art television” (Twin Peaks) that it took many of it’s cues from, The X-Files brought exclusivity to TV.

For the viewers that had been watching since the pilot, what would they think of this new type of storytelling? Would they like it? More importantly, would they understand it? Chris Carter and gang thought so. The best shows, the best works of art for that matter, are always the ones that don’t underestimate their audience.

But, it was messy. If you’ve watched the entirety of The X-Files,  you know what I mean. The mythology is rambling, sometimes ponderous, sometimes thrilling, sometimes elusory, and in the end, not really cohesive. But it was the first to undertake an open narrative in such scale and complexity, so I think it’s allowed a few mistakes.

Despite The X-Files’ many missteps, J.J. Abrams still owes a lot to Chris Carter and the writers of the series. Building off of Carter’s work, Abrams launched such hit shows as Alias and Lost. However, Abrams didn’t address the issues of narrative cohesion that plagued The X-Files, so each of his shows reached similarly unsatisfying endings.

I’m Lost…

If The X-Files pioneered this style, why am I calling this the J.J. Abrams model rather than the Chris Carter model?

Because Carter’s only hit (regrettably) has been The X-Files, whereas Abrams has created, written, or produced more shows than possibly any human being ever (hyperbole, but it goes without saying that he is one of the most prolific creators of TV today). While The X-Files did it first, Lost made it the current popular standard.

The success of Abrams’ shows, like Lost, early on eclipsed their dissatisfying ends and encouraged others, who might not be as capable as Abrams, to reproduce this complex narrative style. The result has been a slew of poorly constructed television that promises exciting twists and turns but ends up spinning out of control, offering up developments that are each more arbitrary and unlikely than the last or leaving important aspects unresolved.

Terra Nova is a good example of a Lostian format gone horribly wrong. The plots were poorly conceived or poorly executed (often times both), and the characters were one dimensional. Structurally, the show was unable to balance its “Monster of the Week” episodes with the larger mythology, which left the first season feeling like it had failed to create a mythology or self-contained storylines. All of this led to a very unsatisfying, and often maddening, viewing experience. Trust me. I watched and wrote about every episode. No, I did not receive hazard pay.

An American Horror Story 

Is there a solution to this increasingly frightening situation facing American TV today? I think so, and it starts with the quote made famous by Johnny Cash, or Albert Pennyworth, or possibly Kenny Rogers: know your limitations. It’s better to make an entertaining, tightly knit narrative than to create an inconsistent one with random or inconsequential plot twists in every episode. Try something new. Pushing the boundaries of any medium is the best way to find growth, but in an era where TV is struggling for relevancy in many ways, taking risks isn’t encouraged. But when it works, it really works.

Take, for example, American Horror Story, one of the biggest hits of the n 2011 Fall season. In an earlier post, I expressed concern that the show was following the J.J. Abrams model of leaping into the narrative before looking, and therefore it was was certainly headed for an unsatisfying conclusion. But, I was wrong. Creators Falchuk and Murphy recognized that AHS’ format was untenable to sustain over several seasons, so they decided to take a risk and conclude the current plot by the end of the first season and start over in season two with a whole new storyline. Whether this will pay off audience-wise remains to be seen, but I think it will certainly keep the show entertaining and interesting far longer than if they had tried to force the narrative onto subsequent seasons.

With Abrams producing several new shows this season (Alcatraz and Person of Interest) and another one of his projects, Revolution, having just been picked up by NBC, I hope we’ll see some evidence of learning from past mistakes. I’m not holding my breath on that, though. At least we have another season of Arrested Development, the pinnacle of narrative control, to look forward to.

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