Ontology and primetime drama rarely collide, and when they do, the results are more often risible than reflective. Gizmos, pseudo-science, and conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies abound and, while characters’ gyrations can make for compulsive viewing, they also tend to challenge the dictates of common sense.
NBC’s midseason replacement series Awake takes another approach. It roots its speculations in the quotidian life of a middle-aged detective, Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who is recovering from the tragic car accident that destroyed his family. Rather than facing mysterious others, Machiavellian frenemies or apocalyptic disasters, the cracks in his reality emerge from the color of a wristband, the height of a suspect, and the smell of fabric softener. Unlike so many TV protagonists confronted with existential discontinuity, Britten accepts it with pleasure and leaves its solution to others.
This discontinuity is continual. In the wake of the car accident, Britten oscillates between two separate realities: when he falls asleep in one reality, he awakes in the other, night after night. In the first, he has buried his son and lives with his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen). She means to move on from the tragedy and is orchestrating a fresh start, repainting the house, resigning from her job, and talking about having another child. In Britten’s other reality, his wife had died, and he and his son Rex (Dylan Minette) muddle through mourning together.
In each world, Britten consults a psychiatrist, works with a partner, and solves a weekly criminal case. What makes Awake look like the thinking person’s must-see TV is its subtle execution of this plethora of open-ended narratives. As each plot undercuts the logic of the others, each episode refuses to pander to the audience with lumbering explication and ham-fisted “clues.”
Britten’s dilemma might be described as a clash between the rational and the intuitive. Both his psychiatrists try—either corrosively (Dr. Lee, played by B.D. Wong) or gently (Cherry Jones’ Dr. Evans)—to convince him of the illusion he has created to cope with loss. But even if he cannot explain his two realities, he treasures the equilibrium, to live in both in order to keep his wife and son alive. His solution, his growing realization that he may not want to “be cured,” becomes more appealing than the feel-good psychobabble of closure.
Admirably, Britten’s embrace of his perpetual dislocations rarely lets the audience relax. Just as he begins to function in both his realities, he wakens one morning to find neither his wife in his bed nor his son in his room. He runs frantically from room to room and, in a desperate effort to restore himself to any life where some part of his family still lives, slices his hand open with a kitchen knife. A moment later, his puzzled wife appears, and tenderly bandages his bleeding palm. But for the viewer, questions multiply. Is this self-harm a forerunner to the psychotic break Dr. Lee has predicted? Is it a moment of clarity, when Britten recognizes he is truly alone, as Dr. Evans hopes? Or is he simply disoriented? Without fanfare, the script leaves open all these possibilities.
That’s not to say the show offers no signs of where we are. Lighting choices do hint at the different worlds, as do unusually well composed wide shots. But the audience has to work, particularly in the first episode, to distinguish the two increasingly interdependent realities. Sharply paced editing shifts Britten in time and space with little sympathy for the inattentive, and his responses to both psychiatrists, shown in close-up reaction shots, accentuate the slipperiness of his locations.
Amid this seeming disorder, Jason Isaacs breathes a wry life into Britten, as a man who slowly feels himself accessing levels of consciousness and perception he never imagined, even as his psychiatrists label them “illness” and his work partners question their relevance. A quiet actor, Isaacs is here called upon to gloss every intonation and expression with meaning so fleeting that it vanishes as one watches: Britten’s scenes with his psychiatrists, in particular, are master classes in subtlety. When Dr. Evans assures him that the reality in which they are speaking is the only reality, Britten’s tiny smile as he tells her that his other psychiatrist says exactly the same thing conveys both his unwillingness to be provocative and his own confidence that neither shrink has a clue about what he is experiencing.
Similarly, Britten’s behaviors with his wife or son convey with eerie economy the nature of the man he is becoming with each. As Hannah is all action, Britten reacts, accepting the transformation of their home and absorbing her desire for a replacement child. In Rex’s reality, Britten is the reverse: he cooks and cleans, and even hovers on the edge of flirtation with Rex’s tennis coach Tara (Michaela McManus).
Our negotiations of Britten’s doubling may be less sanguine than his. Other TV doublings are typically marked by visual cues, such as different hairstyles or styles of dress (the two Olivias in Fringe, for example). Awake offers subtler signs, as Britten seems to be a fluid, almost amniotic psyche, multiple selves at home in a single body.
But even as Britten might make sense of his new existence, Awake runs into problems with its procedural formula. Specifically, the detective is saddled with solving not one but two separate crimes in each episode. The feeble plots and cursory investigations undermine the rest of the show’s subtlety, even as they open further parallels between Britten’s realities. (No possible excuse exists for ripping off the plot of an old Law & Order episode, “Seed,” about a corrupt infertility doctor who impregnates multiple women with his own sperm instead of their husbands’, in Episode Two.) Neither of Britten’s partners—Freeman (Steve Harris) and Vega (Wilmer Valderrama)—does much more than react to his intuitions.
On top of this cop show format, Awake also hints at a conspiratorial uber-plot that might, or might not, explain Britten’s altered states and so downgrade him from active author of his own realities to the unwitting pawn of others. Trekking that hackneyed trail of paranoid fiction will turn Awake into just another clone of Lost or Fringe or The Event. If Britten might remain autonomous, he might also help viewers to probe everything that we, collectively, take for granted, including the assumption that altered mental states are always pathological and internal, and better cured than explored.