Crashing Pilots: Awake
By Tom Houseman
March 1, 2012
I tend to judge pilot episodes of new TV shows very harshly, often giving up on the prospects of a series before it’s even had 22 (or 45) minutes to impress me. That means that I will ignore a great show like Modern Family until well into its third season, when I am finally willing to give it a second chance and realize how much better the series gets after its first episode.
In an effort to rid myself of this bad habit I am starting a new TV-oriented column, “Crashing Pilots.” Each new series that I review will get two reviews: one will focus on the pilot, while the next will follow-up five episodes in, to see if my opinion of the show has changed. Most shows get better over time (Modern Family and Big Bang Theory), some fall off and lose steam after their pilot (The New Girl and Are You There, Chelsea?) and some show how brilliant they are right off the bat and prove it every episode (I miss you, Community!).
I am inherently distrustful of TV dramas built around a mystery. Perhaps it is because I never watched Lost, and therefore have never seen one that really pulled it off, but I think that the medium of the TV series is not conducive to this concept. It is extremely difficult to stretch out a mystery over multiple seasons, even if you do it right, and if you do it wrong you end up with The Event or Terra Nova, which could never figure out what they were trying to do before they got cancelled. But even if a show does have a compelling mystery, it is usually built to work for one season, and the show is likely to fall apart once it needs to build a new mystery. Just ask Heroes.
So it is with considerable trepidation that I sat down to watch Awake, the new NBC drama starring Jason Isaacs, a character actor best known for playing Lucius Malfoy. This show is defined entirely by its concept. It is designed to draw you in with its hook and then, hopefully, keep you coming back week after week to try and unravel the mystery as they slowly spoon you clues. Of course, the pilot episode has the burden of explaining the concept to us, fleshing it out so that we understand what is going to happen on an episode-by-episode basis. In addition, it has to get us to care about the characters and be so enthralled by the mystery that we desperately have to tune in next week. On the first two fronts the pilot of Awake fulfilled its duty, but it is at the second two goals that it failed miserably.
Michael Britten (Isaacs) is a police detective who got into a car crash one night while driving home with his wife and daughter. Now he bounces back and forth between two worlds, waking up in one the moment that he falls asleep in the other (although I don't think that time passes at the same rate in each reality, unless we are to assume that he sleeps for 16 hours). In one world his wife died in the crash and he lives with his son, while in the other his son died but his wife survived. We watch him try to figure out if one is a dream and the other real life, meanwhile solving crimes in both.
That is the main plot twist that we learn in the pilot, and what is going to make up the bulk of the plot in each individual episode. In each world Britten is trying to solve a crime, and he begins to realize that each of the crimes has a clue in common, and he uses that specific clue to solve the murder. What's more, he discovers that both crimes (one a kidnapping, the other a series of murders) were committed by the same person. Presumably in every episode he will have two crimes on his hands and will use this trick to solve both of them. It is also entirely possible that this information will be instrumental in helping him figure out exactly why he is trapped in these two realities and which one is real (my money is on neither).
So the plot meanders along and crams as much exposition as it can while Britten solves both crimes, and I realize that I do not care... at all. Britten is seemingly created as the most bland, uninteresting character ever, and Jason Isaacs is apparently doing his best to play up the blandness. The characters seem cut out of the pictures of models that are used to sell frames, because they are all very attractive but very flat. Awake is clearly trying to have its cake while eating it, playing as a procedural with a larger mystery built around it. In the pilot, at least, it didn't work as either. Neither crime was interesting and both were solved very quickly, and I can imagine how they can play this “which world is real?” mystery for maybe a season, but beyond that? How can this concept fill a whole series?
In terms of the events shown during the episode, the only interesting part was the battle between the parallel-dimensioned psychologists, both of whom are trying to prove to Britten that they are for real real and the other is for play play. The methods they use are entertaining and they are the only characters I felt myself getting invested in. I hope at some point one is able to jump into the other world so that the two of them can fight, but that might be expecting too much.
Were I not writing this column I would almost certainly not continue watching Awake, but the point of this column is to force myself to give these shows a chance. What further information we get about Britten's dilemma, and how his relationship develops with his son's tennis coach in wife-dead land, will determine for me whether or not this show deserves a full season of my attention. Right now the outlook is not good, but if the show can actually get me to care about Britten, then it will at least be moving in the right direction.