TV Review: Awake

Awake 1

Awake creator Kyle Killen is the proud owner of a new title that I never thought I would have to bestow upon someone: best TV writer who is incapable of following through on his ideas. His 2011 show Lone Star – about a charming con man living two lives in Texas – was adored by critics, but it was so dismissed by audiences that it was cancelled after two weeks. (Apparently polygamy only sells when it’s Bill Paxton.) His new sci-fi skewing show Awake seems to be running into similar problems. In it, detective Michael Britten (Jason Issacs) wakes up after a car crash to find that his son has died. He and his wife go about their grieving until Michael falls asleep, and then wakes in a world in which his wife has died and his son is still alive instead. From there on out, Michael can’t fall asleep without switching between the two worlds, suffering through the losses while still enjoying the benefits of each one. It’s a cool, trippy concept, but Killen – as show creator and head writer – can’t seem to figure out what to do with it.

TV Review: AwakeProblem #1: I can get a routine cop show anywhere. Michael is a detective, and each week brings viewers another one of his cases. While not an inherently bad idea, it’s currently turning the show into a generic procedural, slightly more Law and Order than CSI. When you’re tuning in to experience a show’s neat, loopy premise, the last thing you want to be bombarded with is a generic, weekly “whodunit?” On top of that, Michael can have up to two cases per week in his two different worlds, with each case giving him clues about the other one. Let me give you two guesses on how random and confusing these coincidences can be. I have to give it up for Awake’s third episode, in which our hero has only a single case, and uses information from both worlds to solve it. It’s a bit over-the-top for the third episode of a season (Michael’s son, Dylan, is kidnapped by John Cooper, a man Michael has arrested, and Cooper will kill the kid if Michael doesn’t clear his name), but at least it’s understandable. Hopefully future episodes follow this tighter, more direct path – or give us something different altogether.

TV Review: AwakeProblem #2: Damn, Awake is dour. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against heavy, dramatic stories, and I’ve seen some stoic works ruined by trying to inject unnecessary humor. At its heart, Awake is a story about loss, and it’s understandable that the show must deal with depression and grief. But tuning in every week to see a heartbroken Michael drift though his day-to-day life is tough to swallow, especially when you’re not rewarded with the more intense thrills a show like Breaking Bad offers or the dark humor of something like Six Feet Under. You don’t need all chuckles and levity all the time, but you need some more genuine hope to make the sad times worth it.

Problem #3: Make me give a shit about your characters. A point where great sci-fi TV like X-Files, Firefly, or LOST succeeds is by having intriguing, relatable characters. Having trouble coming up with a perfectly structured, original, bizarre adventure this week? No big deal – getting to spend an hour with Mulder, Scully, Malcolm, Kaylee, Jack, Kate, or Hurley still makes the time worth it (well, maybe not Kate.) Sure, Michael feels fleshed-out and real thanks to his grief, but how often have you found yourself wanting to spend time around a perfect stranger because of his grieving? At least that gives him more complexity than anyone else on the show – most of the characters are completely two-dimensional. His wife, Hannah, and son, Dylan, basically exist to do some blank-eyed suffering, and Michael’s two partners, Steve and Efrem, are all work, all the time. Typically, the fewer jokes the show tries to squeeze out of the youthful Efrem (That 70s Show’s Wilmer Valderrama), the better. That’s not to say these roles aren’t ably played, but their blandness ensures that you’ll never be returning for them alone.

Problem #4: Figure out how to play with your concept. Obviously, the biggest thing Awake has going for it is its premise (unless the network heads were just really desperate to find a vehicle for Jason Issacs.) But how much is that hook worth it when it so often gets shifted to the background of the show, only discussed and explored in the couple weekly scenes where Michael goes to see his shrinks? In the season’s second episode, the writers do drop hints at an ongoing conspiratorial arc, as Mike’s boss and a shady, unknown man meet in private to talk about the night of Mike’s car crash. But it’s wedged in so bluntly and the dialogue feels so random that the plot seems distinctly separate from everything else that’s going on in the show. At the same time, we can only wonder how far the show can explore any specific sci-fi slant without killing the whole mystery (or creating a narrative so outlandish to turn off the small fan base the show has.) It’s hard to shake the feeling that Killen has already written the show’s concept into a corner that he doesn’t know how to work his way out. Fingers crossed for some fascinating upcoming twists, though.

All that said, there are elements of Awake that make it interesting enough to keep you coming back. That’s coming from some who couldn’t keep onboard with Alcatraz past two episodes – and I love me some Sam Neil. Dour or not, Jason Issacs (Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter, that asshole British Colonel who kills Heath Ledger in The Patriot) is just a damn good actor, and it’s great to see him getting a leading role after years of excellent character work. The script might make his character a bit bland, but you feel Issacs doing everything he can to give the role some genuine heart. Also, Michael’s shrinks – B.D. Wong in the world where his son has died and Cherry Jones in the world where his wife has died – and their discussions of the different psychoses that might be fueling his delusions can be fascinating. Of course, neither psychologist believes the other one is real, and one of Awake’s more interesting ploys is the way in which both psychologists offer legit reasons why everything that is happening might be entirely in Michael’s head. Here, the show gets more of a chance to play with its concept without letting it getting buried under its more routine elements, and it’s all the better for it.

Outside of the lead’s performance and the show’s intriguing conceit, though, Awake is yet to find much of a way to distinguish itself (and a similar criticism could have been made about Lone Star.) I hope it finds more ways to explore these dual universes, though, because it’s still far more interesting than [insert idea for new medical drama here.] But a haunted man slipping between two different worlds can only be made interesting by that one man for so long; eventually, the worlds have to become interesting themselves.

Rating: 2.75/5 ★★¾☆☆ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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