March 9, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on AWAKE:  Homicide detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) survived a terrible auto accident with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) in the car.  When Michael returned to consciousness, he discovered that Hannah was dead and he had to bring up Rex by himself; he had psychiatrist Dr. Evans to help him with his mental state (Cherry Jones), and sought solace in his work with partner Bird (Steve Harris).  Or at least that was his world until he went to sleep… The instant he fell into slumber, he entered another existence where Rex was dead, Hannah had survived, Michael’s shrink was Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong), and his partner on the force was Vega (Wilmer Valderrama).  Both worlds seem utterly real when Michael is in them, but each psychiatrist convincingly tells Michael that’s impossible–there can only be one reality, and it’s his/hers.  Meanwhile, elements of the crimes Michael solves–names, locations–are starting to bleed from one world and investigation into the other.  So which reality is real?  Or can they somehow both be?  Or is Michael simply out of his mind?

Episode 2:  A lot sooner than one would have expected, in the final minute of tonight’s episode, Awake certainly seemed to provide a broad hint as to what’s really going on with Michael.  There will probably be contradictory clues and red herrings in future episodes to put the apparent revelation in doubt, but as of now an arrow seems to be pointing to one of his realities as being the true one, and the cause of Michael’s psychological split being the effort of his subconscious to start letting him know that the car crash was no accident. 
Until that scene, the second episode, written by series creator/showrunner Kyle Killen and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, followed the path of the pilot very closely, but raised some formal issues about what the rules of this universe are going to be.  For example, both realities featured scenes with, respectively, Hannah and Rex in which Michael didn’t appear at all–breaking the “dream” logic by giving characters in both worlds lives independent of the dreamer’s.  (The final scene, too, featured supporting characters but not Michael.)  Also, Michael has explained the 2 realities as sequential, rather than concurrent, meaning that he experiences an entire day in the world with his wife, and doesn’t join the world with his son until he’s gone to sleep in Wifeworld (and then vice versa).  So he shouldn’t know anything about a clue in his Wifeworld case until that day is over and he’s woken up again in Sonworld.  But in fact, the show intercuts between the 2 worlds as though they’re happening simultaneously, and Michael is instantly aware of events in the other world even when both are within the same day.  
These are the kinds of problems you get into when you try to set up complicated alternate realities–just ask the makers of Lost and Inception.  And you have to give credit to NBC for putting such a conceptually difficult show on the air–it’s actually a much more daring series than Smash.  But one of the problems with Awake, so far, is that its structure is so unwieldly and exposition heavy that there’s hardly anything to the show other than its ornate premise.  (Watching an episode is like playing Clue:  you have to constantly remind yourself, is it Dr. Lee with partner Vega and the wife in the library?)  The twin mysteries of the week are cursory, and although the cast is fine, it’s difficult to engage emotionally with a reality and with characters that may be imaginary.  At its worst, the show can resemble the dreaded Sideways sequences in the final season of Lost.
The question that continues to hover over Awake is whether it’s going to be a gimmick or a show.  (Although if the last scene of tonight’s episode meant what it seemed to, that will change the series dynamic pretty quickly.)  For the moment, it’s an even balance between a drama that’s absorbing and original, and one that’s merely an exercise.  
ORIGINAL VERDICT:  If Nothing Else Is On…
PILOT + 1:  Don’t Put It To Sleep Just Yet

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."