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Television Collision: Drama or Procedural – The Conundrum of Awake

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer


During my recent visit to Los Angeles I noticed the abundance of oversized billboards and ads advertising NBC’s new midseason show Awake. These didn’t surprise me, as NBC desperately needs a hit (that’s not The Voice) and the Awake pilot had garnered a lot of upfront buzz last year, when it was first presented. I myself was looking forward to seeing the show more than almost all other new shows, because the concept sounded so damn trippy and interesting.

Last Thursday finally brought the pilot episode of Awake to TV and as expected I was slightly disappointed. This is a normal effect of anticipointment, so not to worry.
The basic concept, that after a car accident a husband and father is not sure which reality is real, the one in which his son survived or the one in which his wife survived, is as trippy and mind-bending as I expected it to be. I sufficiently enjoyed both shrinks the father Michael Britton (played by Jason Isaacs) consults and how they each try to prove to him that they are real and therefore the other one must be a figment of his imagination. When your own figments of your imagination start arguing with you (which one of the shrinks definitely is, right?), then you know you are in trouble.

I also really liked the consequences Michael Britten is willing to bear in order to keep both realities going. It makes perfect sense that he would not want to “get better” or “make progress” and figure out which reality he is imagining, because that would mean submitting himself to a kind of pain no one would go through willingly. The challenge of the show, however, lies in inching the character closer to the realization that it will be necessary and vital for him to make that choice, to figure out which reality his brain is making up and which one is “the truth”. Unless of course, Awake wants to be like House, then there is no reason to ever really make this decision.

Another path the show could take would of course be to reveal that Michael Britten is in a coma and he is hallucinating both universes and in reality both his son and his wife died.
Or maybe Michael died himself?

There are many possibilities for the reveal to play out, but several small indicators already worry me that we won’t get a satisfying dénouement. For one thing, Episode 2 of the show apparently had to be re-shot, and the original Episode 2 now serves as a much later episode, in which something vital is revealed. Some critics have argued that the show would work a lot better if this reveal came early, but by drawing it out the show risks alienating some viewers early in its run.
Furthermore, I worry that the concept of Awake won’t hold up for more than a season, because you can only stretch the suspension of disbelief so far. But then again, How I Met Your Mother has been on the air for seven years. Who would have thought that concept could carry this long?

The most disappointing because repetitive and non-intriguing part of Awake is the fact that Michael Britten is a homicide detective. If there was one thing we didn’t need this TV season, it was another crime procedural. The fall season already premiered Prime Suspect, Person of Interest, and Unforgettable, adding them to the already large pool of crime fighters on TV. If there is one profession vastly overrepresented on television, it’s homicide detectives.
How the cases blended together in Britten’s head, adding to the confusion between reality vs. dream established nicely how his “every day life” is affected by his brain’s trouble to assert what’s real, but this interweaving could have happened in any other job as well.

If Awake can shoot more for straight drama instead of a crime procedural with dramatic elements, it might be able to go somewhere. Jason Isaacs gives a solid performance and he will have to be the rock by which Wilmer Valderrama pulls himself out of That 70’s Show mold, something Michael Cudlitz achieved with ease on Southland for Ben McKenzie and his O.C. fame.
The characters of the two psychologists also need to be developed much further, almost into In Treatment territory really, which is an idle hope for an NBC show, but would make Awake all the more compelling.

Generally speaking, Awake might have been better off on CBS, because there is an audience that loves procedurals (see the success of Person of Interest, which is a very dull show, yet brings in 10 million viewers a week), whereas NBC’s audience seems to have no such tastes (see how quickly Prime Suspect faded away, although it had a lot of potential and the recent abysmal run of crime-adjacent The Firm).
I don’t mean to suggest that viewers can’t use their remote to change the channel, and yet the numbers seem to suggest that they don’t as often as network execs would like them to. And given the fact that Awake is getting a jarring lead-in by NBC’s Thursday night comedy block of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Office and Up All Night, I can’t imagine those same viewers will stick around for a dark crime drama like Awake.

In summation, Awake has amazing potential and a very intriguing premise, although I would love to see Paul Weston treat Michael Britten more than anything else. NBC has obviously put quite some money into the ad campaign for Awake and it has received considerable buzz, yet somehow ended up on an unfortunate night on NBC. The premiere numbers were good (the best NBC has seen in almost a year in that time slot), but I am sure they will decline, as almost all numbers for all shows do these days.
If Awake can take some risks and veer away from being a typical crime procedural it might grow some legs and it is definitely worth a look or two. What else are you really doing on Thursday nights at 10 anyway?