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?

7 thoughts on “How “Awake” Could Have A Shot At Surviving

  1. Theoretically I think you’re right about Awake but NBC’s numbers are so low, their viewership so compressed that time and space flows differently there, and the rules of our reality no longer apply. I never thought I’d say suc a thing, but I almost wish this was a CBS show; they’ve proven in the past to take care of semi-paranormal procedurals like this, plus they have an actual audience.

    At least thy shot the first season in a bubble, so we have at least one run to watch if and when this doesn’t become a Smash.

  2. Sepinwall and co refer to a tease at the end of epiosde 2 regarding the “mystery” that is subsequently ignored for episodes 3 and 4. This could be concerning. I agree with what you have said about the relative merit of leaving the mystery alone but then it has to be complete – you can’t tease that there may be a resolution ala The Killing with no intention of ever delivering – that will only alienate fans. Its going to be a difficult balance to maintain and lets hope they have the foresight to get right and more importantly are given the time to do it right

  3. Xenon: I agree that Awake would undoubtedly do better on a different channel, and I even wish it would go to a cable or premium channel rather than a network. But, maybe one silver lining of NBC is that their numbers are so low that a slight success like Awake’s premiere could be enough by NBC standards to keep it around, whereas on other networks it would be considered a failure.

    Flashman: When I wrote this, I hadn’t read Sepinwall’s review of the show, but teasing out the mystery and then leaving it hanging would certainly complicate things, and not for the better. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

  4. I have to say first I adore Jason Isaacs! And the kid who plays Rex, loved him on Saving Grace.

    I think you idea to present Awake’s world as just the status quo is a good one. unfortunately you can already see that the producers aren’t going to leave it alone. All fans can really hope for is that they do build the mystery up slowly so the show has time to run some sort of course.

    Many, many viewers are tired of the procedural. I rather love them myself but I’ve read countless complaints about them…this goes a long way in producers minds to “play” around with their show in a way that tends to gum up the works…

    Anyway great post…I look forward to future opinions on Awake. Cheers…

  5. Thanks, yaykisspurr! I also love Jason Isaacs – he’s great in everything. I definitely can relate to the viewers who are tired of the procedural, but I’m really just bored with the CSI, NCIS kind of format. I think Awake has a really unique twist that makes the procedural feel fresh. Hope viewership stays high enough to keep it afloat.

    • I have no problem with the procedurals but think they suffer from not being fleshed out much. The “usual” 43 minute show would be able to spend more time on the background, investigation yada yada yada then Awake which splits the procedural into its impact in both worlds which leaves less time for the actual case to evolve normally. This does add a unique element to it of course which I enjoy as demonstrated in episode 3.

      I loved Saving Grace btw – never got the cred it deserved

    • I hope it stays afloat too! And I love Awake’s concept as well. The episodes I’ve seen so far (the first three) have all been excellent!

      @flashman181 – I too loved Saving Grace and hated when it went off the air! I also love the unique element of splitting the case between the two worlds and how they tend to play out totally different from each other. (Also I kind of like the two crazy psychiatrists who think their contemporary is part of a dream!)

      I just hope people who are tired of any of the procedural formats will give Awake a fighting chance!

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