Awake, First, Only and Last Season

An ironic name, given its audience...

An ironic name, given its audience…

Yesterday night I saw the last episode of NBC’s Awake. I suspect that Fox spoiled me by continuing to renew Fringe despite the ratings drama, and thus I hoped that NBC might do the same. But they simply could not chance a second season of the intriguingly psychological police drama.

I’ve briefly covered this before, but Awake is the story of detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who recently suffered a car accident with his wife and son (Laura Allen and Dylan Minnette respectively). Each time he goes unconscious, be it sleep or otherwise, he wakes up in the “other world.” The two worlds are different enough; in one his wife survived but his son did not, and vice versa.

The differences do not end there. The world of his wife is tinged with an orange/red color, where he answers to psychologist John Lee played by BD Wong of Law & Order: SVU, and is partnered with rookie Detective Vega (Wilmer Valderrama).

The other world is a bluish green, where he has sessions with psychologist Judith Evans (Cherry Jones) and solves cases with long time partner and friend ‘Bird’ Freeman, played by Steve Harris. In both worlds he answers to Captain Harper (Laura Innes). But all characters exist, or have existed, in each of the realities.

The detective cases in one world always seemed to have unexplained details that related to the other. As Britten picks up on these details, it scares his partners and boss with his preternatural instincts for solving cases. Clues seemed to come out of no where. Cases get solved with speed that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame.

But all the while, there are details that make no sense to the case, building the clues in Britten’s mind. These bizarre and esoteric clues lead Britten to conspiratory discovers surrounding the night of his family’s car accident.

The show’s creators, upon finding out about the cancellation, attempted to end the show on a satisfying enough page. They did not have enough time to expand the story beyond a low level plot of a corrupt police drug operation. There was no conspiracy that explained Britten’s mental condition as I was first led to believe. That was completely his own doing. Instead, the show takes advantage of its twin psychologists to rationalize the unusual nature of Britten’s twin mindedness.

The plot aspects of each episode did not always make the greatest of sense. The alternate versions of certain suspects created confusion, sometimes without satisfactory reconciliation. I believe that even the show’s writers had a difficult time deciding how to best implement episode plots, and it showed.

But I enjoyed the well roundedness of each of Awake’s characters. No character annoyed me. Both the wife and son got considerable on screen time, and their irrationalities were rationalized by either Wong or Jones’ character. There was not time to really develop either of the partners Freeman or Vega, but their personalities and mannerisms worked well. I enjoyed Freeman’s concern for his partner and level headedness, and Vega mixed an excellent blend of rookism with common-sense regarding Britten’s antics.

The show’s conclusion was a rush to Britten’s metanoia. There were scenes of subtle, disturbing creepiness, such as when he spoke to his alternative self through a prison visit. The best scene had to be where Britten walked down the prison hall, while the two psychologists clashed and argued behind him.

Lee and Evans jabbed each other with their conflicting philosophies, like brain parents fighting over their child. Lee took on what could be described as paternal instincts, believing that Britten should have taken charge of his dreams and cast the other aside. The maternal Evans however, embraced and encouraged Britten, trying to let his mind naturally accept and heal itself. Given the second to last scenes of the show, it could be suggested that Lee’s denial of the otherworld was a desperate attempt to deny and save himself, a survivalistic instinct threatened by Britten’s fractured psyche.

The final scene of Awake hurt the show. Rather than embracing the blue/green world where his wife is dead, as hinted by a goodbye kiss between them, the creators decided to try and wish away the point of the entire show with, “It was all a dream! Your wife and son are just fine.”

Needless to say, such a whimsical approach to the ending kills the mood. As though the last twelve episodes did not matter in the least to the ending.

Despite this set back, I have to applaud the show’s overall innovation and originality. The show is technically a marketplace failure as it lasted only one season. Such first generation experiment often fail however. But the loss often creates artistic seeds from which new, better executed television can be developed, much like how Dark City inspired Inception.

Time will tell.

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Origins, Origins…

So I just watched the first (and thus far only released) episode of Awake. The premise is simple if a bit strange; a detective, his wife and his son were involved in a car accident. The detective then isn’t sure if he’s awake or dreaming, when he goes to sleep, he visits two worlds. In one, his son survived but his wife didn’t. In the other, vice versa. And somehow, the details of his cases in one world reflect the other, despite the fact that (thus far) the crimes are different, but committed by the same person.

After finishing the episode, the sneak peek of the next episode immediately brings up hints about how and why this detective, played by Jason Isaacs, is experiencing these two alternate worlds. Desperate to keep their baby alive, the show’s producers put the detective’s son on the line in the next episode, hoping that a snap of drama and the possibility of finding out the origin of this psychological phenomenon will keep audiences hooked.

In the next episode, stuff might happen. But does it? Stay tuned...

In the next episode, stuff might happen. But does it? Stay tuned...

I have to say that this kind of bugs me. For some reason, it feels like American audiences (or at least our television and movie producers) have an obsessive need to clarify the origins of everything unusual. While the origins of a problem need to be clarified in order to diagnose the solution (as House would be quick to remind us), does every situation or every character need a completely fleshed out background story?

Why?

To understand the nature of my complaint, take a look at the past three Conan the Barbarian movies. In the first with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the rebooted third with Jason Momoa, the developers felt they needed to explain Conan’s childhood and origins.

What makes this strange is that Robert E. Howard never actually clarified Conan’s origins. The only crucial detail* Howard ever gave was that his father was a blacksmith, and that Conan had a wandering foot. The two origin stories where Conan was taken by slavers and the other where his father was slain by a power hungry madman were never part of the original Conan tales.

I remember reading (though I can’t recall where, probably IGN) about the new and rebooted Spider Man movie coming out. The author suggested that Marvel skip the whole origins story. I couldn’t agree more. It’s been done, we get it, we don’t need to hear it again. Not only do I recall it from the first movie, I have seen it retold in no less than two animated series.

Do heroes and villains always need origin stories? Heather Ledger’s Joker didn’t in The Dark Knight. Look how unforgettable he was.

I guess I ask all this because of my own writing. I would say about two thirds of my tales have addressed origin tales for both heroes and villains. Yes, even villains who die off at the end of the story get origins and reasoning, an explanation for their dastardly deeds. They hurt people because it is worth their time too. And probably because they enjoy it.

I guess it worries me because one of the heroes of my stories does not get a background. There is a story of course, about all the other supporting characters and the villain but not for the hero himself. Or perhaps I’m going about this wrong. Maybe he isn’t the hero, but an element that just happened to be there to help the main characters. Man, am I glad the story is only in draft form.

* – There are details I missed/forgot in my first draft, but Howard did keep Conan’s origins fairly vague. Thanks to Al Harron for this tip and correction.