Back in the fall, I wrote about two new shows that piqued my interest; this is rather unusual for me as I generally don’t get into shows until after they’ve been on for some time and I am drawn in by good buzz (often from family and friends) or because the show comes on after another one I already watch (becoming less and less of an thing as I increasingly watch shows only via the Internet and not the television set). Well, this has a particularly strange year in that regards because I began watching yet another new show from the start, this one a show that began mid-season. That show is Awake, and it is one of the best new shows I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. Unfortunately, in the time it’s taken me to write this blog post (originally intended for posting after the first few episodes aired), the show’s fate had been sealed: canceled after just 13 episodes. Having just watched the 13th and now final episode of the show, here are some of my thoughts on this amazing creation.
Awake has a fairly simple yet entirely complex premise – after a massive car accident, Detective Michael Britten’s wife Hannah dies, and Michael and his son Rex struggle to cope with this loss, with Michael being ordered by the police captain to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Evans. But when Michael goes to sleep at night, he awakes to find another life where Rex has died in the crash and Hannah is still alive. Here, not only is Michael required to see a psychiatrist, this time a Dr. Lee, but he is also transferred from working with his longtime partner Isaiah “Bird” Freeman to being partnered with rookie detective Efrem Vega. Back and forth, Detective Britten switches between these two alternate outcomes and he has absolutely no idea which one of these lives is actually reality and which is just a dream. Meanwhile, events that occur in one scenario help inform events in the other, further causing confusion as to which one is real or what on earth is actually going on here.
The concept of having two different realities based on only one difference is not entirely unique (I’m instantly reminded of the movie Sliding Doors), but it is certainly not your run-of-the-mill primetime TV idea or yet another “reality” TV show. I for one absolutely love this concept, and the execution was done well throughout Awake. While it could sometimes be a bit confusing to keep up with the changing lives and the stories in each, especially initially, the show’s creators do their best to give clues about the different lives – for instance, in order to help keep his own mind straight, Britten wears a red rubber band around his wrist when with Hannah and a green one when with Rex. (In talking about the show, people will refer to the “red world” or “red reality” versus the “green world” or “green reality” because of this. These colors are also “pushed” ala Amelie in the scenes from the corresponding lives.) Having two different psychiatrists and two different partners is purely a ploy to make the two lives more distinguishable, but it helps to ease any confusion and rounds out the cast.
It was consistently interesting to see how the two worlds would cross over so that clues from one case helped crack another case (i.e., 611 Waverly in first episode) and to see both psychiatrists react by saying this overlap is Britten’s subconscious using his “dream” to inform his real life. Obviously because of Britten’s occupation, Awake is a cop show in some regards, but it’s really more of a drama about a person, his relationships with his family and co-workers, and his increasingly tenuous grip on reality. The cases are there and they are interesting enough in their own right, although fairly predictably. But the thing that hooks you back in each week is how well Britten is going to be able to juggle these two realities, if/when he’ll find out which one is real, how he’ll react then, and so forth. Starting with the episode titled “That’s Not My Penguin,” there’s the suggestion that Britten might be schizophrenic and/or suffering from hallucinations, putting yet another spin on what is going on in the series. Throughout, there so much interesting psychology to this show that I found myself really enjoying it on multiple layers.
Early in the series (I believe in the second episode), there’s a suggestion at the end that the accident that stole the life of one member of the Britten family was not actually an accident but a corrupt cop cover-up, although few details are given at the time. This piece of dramatic irony adds another wrinkle to Awake’s fabric by planting a seed in the audience’s mind about the show’s potential and where it might go next. Other interesting angles include the suggestion in the episode “Oregon” that one of the “dreams” will be forced to fade away once/if Detective Britten moves to Oregon with his wife because there won’t be the same landscape in both to allow reality to keep informing the dream of Rex still being alive. It would have been interesting to see if the show went in that direction but I would have hated to see a new partner, psychiatrist, and so forth in Portland as the cast was already so perfect (more on that later). There was also a great hook left behind with a serial killer still on the loose being the only one besides Britten’s psychiatrists to know that he can’t tell if he’s awake or dreaming. In addition, there was sometimes the hint in the green world that a romantic relationship could grow between Michael and Tara, Rex’s tennis coach and sounding board, which would have created an interesting dynamic to see Michael struggle with feelings for someone new and moving on in the green world while still being with his wife in the red world.
The cast of Awake was absolutely perfect in two regards – both diversity and acting. It’s refreshing to see a show where there’s actually a fair amount of diversity in the casting. Unlike in other detective shows where there’s only one stock female character (i.e., Psych, Monk, etc.), here we have a wealth of women on the show including Hannah, Dr. Evans, and Captain Harper in the weekly cast as well as Tara and Rex’s girlfriend Emma in the regularly recurring cast and numerous witnesses, suspects, police staff, and an FBI agent in various other episodes. I’m impressed that there’s no falseness to these characters either – they act like real people, not like sad stereotypes of the damsel in distress or the femme fatale. Bird is played by an African-American actor, Vega by a Latino actor, and Dr. Lee by an Asian actor, so it doesn’t feel like the show just stuck one stock minority character into the cast either. I also noticed that in the background crowds there’s a decent amount of diversity, which I hadn’t realized until I saw this show that this is not the case in many crowds in other shows or even movies, which is just silly because it’s an easy way to get at least some minority characters into any production.
In terms of acting, everyone is perfect in his or her respective role. Jason Isaacs as Detective Britten is ridiculously good – there aren’t words enough to explain his performance and how top-notch it is. Wilmer Valderrama does not disappoint as always, playing his role of the “new” guy trying to get a handle of Britten’s erratic behavior with perfect understatement. Laura Innes as Captain Harper played some superb scenes in the last two episodes in particular. B.D. Wong’s role as Dr. Lee also stands out as especially compelling, but the actors playing Dr. Evans, Rex, and Bird was also all phenomenal. In the beginning, I wasn’t in love with Laura Allen as Hannah, but I think this might in part be due to the way the character was written at the start. In the first episode in particular, Hannah is almost maniac, moving from redecorating the house to talking about selling it altogether to considering going back to school to trying to convince Michael to have another child. By the second episode, she has calmed down and is dealing more with Rex’s death and next steps forward. Both the character and the actor grew on me quickly, and I came to dislike the possibility of Hannah being just a dream as much as I disliked the possibility of Rex being just a dream.
*Now, I am going to talk a little about how the season wrapped up so if you want to be spoiler-free, stop reading here.*
Somewhere in the middle of the season, I read an article that put the realization in my head that the red world is more likely to be reality because this was the one where all the clues about the conspiracy theory behind the car accident were creeping into the plot. Indeed, these were some of the only times where the viewers saw much of anything happening outside of Britten’s perspective. (There was the occasional scene with just Hannah or just Rex without Britten but these largely tied into that episode’s arc and didn’t add much more to the feeling of reality.) At the time, Rex’s role had been diminishing somewhat in the show, with Rex showing up not at all or only limitedly in a couple of episodes, such as in “Nightswimming.” But just when you think you start to have things figured out, Awake snaps another possibility your way, with the conspiracy theory starting to rear its head in the green world as well.
Still, I felt like the red world was going to be the real one up into the last couple of episodes when I didn’t know what to expect. In the end seems like green world is the real one? That, or everything up until that point was a dream with both Hannah and Rex living all along (or dead all along, with Britten finally meeting up with them both in heaven, as one theory goes). Another theory is that Britten just split again and created a third reality, in which both of them are still alive after realizing that there were no set “rules” to his dream world and he could make it whatever he wants. (I cannot take credit for this fabulous theory; I read it online and think it makes sense given the context of his talk with Dr. Evans right before this final dream/reality occurs.) In some ways, I liked that the ending was just ambiguous enough -- apparently, this was the ending to season one as intended all along, not one hastily tacked on because the show was canceled, so clearly it was meant to be ambiguous so that there were be new issues to tackle in the second season. Still, it works as a series finale, too, considering that’s all we’re going to get at this point. I would be interested to watch all of the episodes over again and see what could be gleaned a second time around and if/how everything ties in now that I sort of know the ending.