Some might write off small screen writing as trite and tepid, to use politically correct terms, especially in the realm of network television. I would argue that with any medium you will find garbage and gems. Much more garbage than gems, as garbage is much easier to produce, easier to understand, and therefore caters to a larger crowd. Or in executive marketing language, more money.
Such is the case of Awake, which debuted in January 2012 and has already been corralled for slaughter along with dozens of other shows. Reasons behind this may be due to the time slot it was assigned, the amount of hype behind the show or lack thereof, or perhaps the fact that it was regarded as ‘another cop show’. I believe the reason was simply this: it was too smart.
At the start, it seems innocent enough. Jason Issacs stars as Michael Britton, who has a car accident, attends the funeral for his son, Rex, with his wife, Hannah, who survived the accident. Then he goes to sleep, wakes up almost instantly, and goes to attend his wife’s funeral with his son, who survived the accident. After that day is complete, he goes to sleep again, and awakens next to his wife, who never died. All you need now is Morpheus with a pair of pills.
Yet the show doesn’t go in a sci-fi direction, but rather takes a curious philosophical adventure bouncing between the two realities throughout the series, always challenging the audience and Britton with the question, “Which world is real?”
Awake was incredibly challenging to keep up with if you didn’t understand the premise of the show and - more importantly - its mechanics. Keeping track of characters and plot lines are one thing, but the dual realities made Awake more challenging and fun to watch. Mercifully, I watched this with my wife, and during the pilot episode she flagged a critical difference between the two realities that helped us keep things in order. The world with the wife alive and the son dead had a warm golden light design, while the world with the wife dead and the son alive had a cooler blue light design. I spoke with other people who saw the show, but they gave up on it after the first or second episode, because they couldn’t keep track of which world was which. There were other elements that differentiated the two worlds, such as the different partners, the wife or son, or the red and green wristbands. Plus, most every episode had a different case, each of which had a similar element that only Britton could perceive, since they were present in both worlds.
It could be paralleled to the series finale of ST:TNG “All Good Things...” in which Captain Picard was jumping between three different time periods that each contributed to a central problem that he was trying to solve.
While Awake kept the story spinning, it seemed obvious once they received notice that the series had been cancelled: they accelerated the story, and sought to bring it to a conclusion. The third-to-last episode took the story in a sharp turn, and brought the case of Britton's family separation into the forefront, becoming the central story which carried out to the end of the season and series.
The established boundaries of the worlds blended to the point that it was increasingly difficult to keep up with the story, but still held in place. If you didn’t remember the yellow and blue rule, it would have been all too easy to throw your hands up in despair. But the story found its end, yet the overlying element of the series had not. If he had resolved the case of his family’s murders, which world was he going to live in? He still wanted both worlds, or rather a way to have his family together again. In the last 10 minutes of the final episode, Britton has an epiphany of sorts, and ponders the idea that the only reason the two worlds exist is because he allows them to. If one reality is a dream of the other, who’s to say that he isn’t imagining both worlds, and his wife and son are both alive? All he has to do is wake up and greet them.
What follows can be compared to the movie Labyrinth when Sarah realizes the Goblin King has no power over her, and the only reason he took her brother and pulled her into the world of the Labyrinth was because she allowed it. Another example is the ST:TNG episode “A Frame of Mind” when Riker believes that he’s going insane and losing his grip on reality, when in fact he had another reality forced on him. Using another story from the Star Trek universe, in ST:DS9 “Distant Voices” when Julian Bashir is trapped in a mental construct of the station and he is rapidly losing control of things, he takes control of the station and powers things up when he confronts the fact that he is in control of his mind and the only reason he was allowing the mental virus to control him was due to his own will.
Using willpower to bolster your choices takes effort and work. It’s also difficult to explain in a way that is understood easily. I was very pleased with how Awake addressed the complexity of human mental capacity and the dangers associated with illness and instability.
I’m going to miss it.