Awake teaches us how to watch and accept
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
March 02, 2012 – 10:43
One of the main jobs of any television pilot is to teach us how to watch the series yet to come. In large part, that means establishing the key elements of the narrative: the setting, the characters, the genre, the relationships. In complex narratives, that also means setting up the storytelling hook, especially where there’s a supernatural element, an overriding mystery, or otherwise a “high concept” gimmick to make the show stand out as distinct. And the pilot should set the tone, both for style and emotion—and if it’s a good show, stylistic & emotional tone should work in tandem, as with the colorful whimsy of Pushing Daisies or the sweeping importance of The West Wing. It quite rare of a pilot to do all of this, as most debut episodes give us placeholders for future development of characters, setting, or relationships, as there’s only so much story to tell within 45 minutes.
I just watched a pilot that seems to do it all: NBC’s new show Awake, Kyle Killen’s second attempt to do a network show about a man leading a double life (after 2010’s Lone Star became the season’s best-reviewed and least-watched show). You can watch it online if you’re in the U.S., and I highly recommend it—Awake is one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen, ranking alongside other favorites like Alias, Veronica Mars, Lost, and Pushing Daisies. If you’ve watched it, read on for some thoughts about how I think it might overcome some pitfalls of complex television—and if you haven’t watched it, seriously, follow that link!
The premise of Awake is seriously high concept: police detective Michael Britten gets into a deadly car accident with his family, and when he sleeps, he switches between a reality where his wife was killed but his teenage son survived, and one where his son died but his wife didn’t. The premise is easy to describe, but hard to convey what it means as a series—and the most common refrain from critics about the show is that it seems like it would be a great movie, but how will it work as an ongoing serial? I think the answer is there in pilot, less in terms of the concept and more about the tone, characters, and approach to storytelling.
As always with a pilot, the opening sequence is the key to set the parameters for what is to come. The show opens with the car crash, presented with painful violent energy culminating in three shots: unconscious wife Hannah, unconscious son Rex, husband Michael waking up. This last shot pulls back and rotates in corkscrew fashion to show the inverted wreck of the car, visualizing Michael’s world turned upside down (a visual effect that doesn’t come across as a bad pun unless you write about it). Over this shot, we hear the voice soon to be revealed as Michael’s therapist Dr. Lee say, “So tell me how this works.” Michael’s voice replies, “I don’t know. I close my eyes, I open them. Same as you.” We then cut to a shot of Hannah and Michael grieving at a funeral, clearly suggesting that Rex has died. Lee’s voice then says, “let’s just start at the beginning,” to which Michael says, “No.” We cut to Michael sitting in his therapy session to continue his line, “let’s start it right now.”
This starting 50 seconds is not particularly rich in narrative details—we learn that there was a car accident, and presumably Rex was killed in the accident—but it does give us some key clues on how to watch the show. First, the camerawork and editing is established as unconventionally stylized and free-roaming across time frames without explicit motivation, inviting us to pay attention to overt visual style in a way that few network programs do. The dialog sets up two poles for how to approach the story that will prove to be crucial—Lee takes an analytic tactic, as befits his profession, trying to understand how things work and grapple with origins. Michael wants to live in the now, downplaying that anything unusual is happening to him. These poles of engagement help structure the show’s narrative, as his dual (and dueling) therapists want to make rational sense of what’s happening to Michael as he flips between reality and a presumed dream, while Michael just wants to enjoy his split lives where he effectively can live without loss. As he says at the end of the pilot, “when it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress.”
These dual approaches mirror how we might engage with the unusual scenario as well—we can try to make rational sense of it to solve a mystery (“so tell me how this works”), or we can enjoy the now by accepting the premise as it is, not as a problem to be solved. As I’ve written about at length, much of complex television fosters a mode of forensic fandom where viewers are encouraged to solve such high-concept puzzles, to ask “why?” and presume there’s an answer to be found by drilling down and analyzing, much like with therapy (or academic analysis). But I read Awake’s pilot as an invitation to side with Michael, not only as our story’s protagonist, but as a role model for accepting what we’ve been given without wanting to know the reasons why—as viewers, Michael asks that we don’t focus on cracking the mystery of what is “really” going on here, or deduce which reality is real. [Spoiler: neither. It’s a TV show.]
The rest of the pilot focuses our attention on what matters most: Michael works on rebuilding his relationships with son and wife in the wake of the massive losses that each suffered, but he did not (at least fully). Michael learns how to make his condition an asset for doing his job, as experiences in each world seem to inform the cases he solves in the other. Michael develops coping strategies to orient himself across realities with colored bracelets as visual reminders, a technique mirrored in the dual color schemes and film tints that the show uses impressively to demarcate (and subtly blend) the two realms.
In many ways, the pilot might be seen as situating Awake within a specific subgenre: the supernatural detective drama. Although very different in tone and style, there’s a parallel here with the show Medium, which focused on Allison DuBois, a psychic who worked with the police to solve crimes. (And though I never watched it, Ghost Whisperer might be another apt parallel as well.) On Medium, there was never any issue as to whether Allison really was a psychic or how her powers worked—we simply accepted the fantastic premise that she communicated with the dead and enjoyed watching how it offered a twist on procedural cop plots and impacted her personal life (and as an aside, Medium’s portrait of a marriage and parenthood is one of the most compelling I’ve ever seen on TV). So might we read Michael similarly as a character with a special, somewhat inexplicable gift that both enriches and complicates his life? What if the overarching narrative of the show isn’t trying to “start at the beginning” to understand what is happening, but to “start it right now” to understand how his condition matters to him and others in his life?
I desperately hope that Awake will not fall into the trap that plagued other high concept series in recent years, like Flash Forward, The Event, and Day Break, where concerns about a compelling central mystery overrode all other storytelling imperatives. The quality of Awake’s writing, performances, visual style, and emotional realism give me faith, as it’s already produced a more compelling 45 minutes than any of those shows could cobble together out of their singular seasons. But I fear that the pull of forensic fandom might make it seem like the goal of the show is to provide answers to the mysterious concept, rather than exploring its consequences in the lives of characters whom I already care about. Of course a pilot is always a promissory note for what is (hopefully) to come, more than a blueprint to be followed, and much can change as a series develops. But after watching this excellent pilot, I hope that the series respects Michael Britten’s wishes by accepting him for who he is, not trying to solve his problem, and letting us immerse ourselves in both of his lives.