'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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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