'Awake' Rejects the Psychobabble of Closure

Lesley Smith

What makes Awake look like the thinking person's must-see TV is its subtle execution of a plethora of open-ended narratives.


Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Laura Britton, Dylan Minette, Steve Harris, Wilmer Valderrama, Michaela McManus, Cherry Jones, B. D. Wong
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Director: David Slade
Air date: 2012-3-1

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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