Awake: “Pilot”

Epistemology 101


NBC, Thursdays, 10 PM ET/PT


Written by Kyle Killen

Directed by David Slade

“The Little Guy”

Written by Kyle Killen

Directed by Jeffrey Reiner

“Something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.” — Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Just when I was sick unto the very death of police procedurals, along comes NBC with the weirdest “twist” of all: alternate realities. Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) survives a car accident, but still isn’t sure whether his wife and son did. Britten lives in two realities: in one, his wife lived and his son died, and everything is some shade of red. In another reality, his wife died and his son lived, and the world is tinged with a melancholy green. Is he awake? Is he dreaming? If that, and that alone, was the premise of a series, it would be enough to hold my interest. But as the pilot progresses, Britten juggles two different shrinks (BD Wong in the red world, who believes Britten is broken, and Cherry Jones in the green world, who thinks he’s a miracle) and two different partners (Wilmer Valderrama [Suburgatory], Steve Harris [Eli Stone]) in different worlds. Astonishingly, clues in one world lead to the solution of a case in the other, even though the clues are not even related. For example, an address in one world turns out to match a totally different location in the other, and a different crime. How to explain these flashes of apparent intuition?

“When it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress.” — Britten

Apart from Britten himself, the most fascinating characters are the dueling shrinks. BD Wong plays Dr. Lee, an earnest counselor in the green world who urges Britten to reject the idea that his “dreams” are real, that they are significant in terms of objective reality, or that they are helping him. Convinced that Britten is approaching the brink of a psychotic break, Lee actually sits on the edge of his seat, so urgent is his concern for what he sees as a cop unravelling before his eyes. In the red world, however, Cherry Jones’ Dr. Evans has a more open and intuitive approach, and reminds Britten that many scientists and philosophers have solved real-world problems by filtering them through their subconscious. Neither shrink believes the other reality is “real”, both of them believe this is all happening in Britten’s head, but one of them seems almost personally offended at the idea of these hyperreal dreams, and the other embraces them as a healing opportunity. Michael himself is not interested in “healing” or making “progress” if it means giving up either his wife or his son. He doesn’t want to “get better” or figure out which reality is the “real” one. That’s a problem of more concern to the shrinks than Michael. They are, in effect, fighting for the soul of Michael Britten, even when he himself is not. To a certain extent, they are playing out opposite sides of an argument that goes back as far as human self-awareness: how do we know what we see and hear is “real”?

“I think, therefore I am.” — Rene Descartes

In Western thought, modern philosophy begins with French mathematician and thinker Rene Descartes (1596-1650). In his work, he began with extreme skepticism, doubting everything he could not prove. Most of all, he was concerned with whether what we perceive is objectively real, or the product of imagination, hoax, or self-deception. Ironically, Descartes decided to devote his life to philosophy after experiencing a series of dreams on the night of 10 November 1619. These dreams revealed to Descartes that all truths were connected to one another, a conceit that we may see reflected in the structure of Awake, where what is true in one dream/world is echoed — as a different but no less real truth — in another dream/world. Having established in his famous “Cogito, ergo sum” that all knowledge begins with the self, he then proceeded to construct a system of knowledge based not on perception but on logic and deduction — sort of like a police detective rejecting intuition and going on “just the facts”. He also concluded that since external perceptions are thrust upon him, not created by him, that they are real, much as Michael is concluding as events unfold in both his worlds.

“You should have listened, instead of taking out his whole family,” — Captain Harper

The clues that bleed from one reality to another hint at an underlying order to this apparent chaos, a subterranean organization whose structural framework peeks through from time to time. And like all glimpses of the man or mechanism behind the curtain, it tantalizes precisely because it seems it should make sense. This is the fascinating part of this show — not Britten’s struggle with grief and loss (although Isaacs handles that superbly) or the rather routine police procedural cases. It’s the glimpse of a world beyond this one, one which promises more order, hope and justice than we can discern on our own, that teases the imagination and ropes me back in. So when, in the final moments of the second episode, Captain Harper (Laura Innes, ER) and a mysterious man meet on a park bench — which already tells me what they’re going to talk about. From Oliver Stone’s JFK to The X-Files, conspiracies are always outlined in mystery meetings on park benches. Sure enough, Harper and her pal reveal that Britten’s accident was not an accident, and that they may know more about these crossover dreams than they’re supposed to. I understand the appeal of hooking mythology buffs into a new show — they’re vocal, devoted and obsessive. However, if it turns out that Awake’s glimpse behind the stage reveals not some grand and mysterious law of the universe, but just another cheap conspiracy for gain or wealth or privilege, I’m going to be bored and disgusted.

“Maybe the fact that I see things differently allows me to know what questions to ask, what answers to focus on.” — Britten

Jason Isaacs once confessed at an audition that, “In real life, I am a cringing, neurotic Jewish mess. Can’t I for once play one in real life?” After years of playing indelible bad guys like Lucius Malfoy (Harry Potter), Captain Hook (Peter Pan) and a sadistic British colonel (The Patriot), Isaacs finally gets to really show American audiences what he can do on the small screen. And it treats him well — the laser blue eyes can flash heat or ice, depending on whether he’s losing his temper with a police spy or interrogating a suspect, but at all times they reflect intelligence. With no trace at all of a British accent, Isaacs comes across as the quintessential middlebrow cop — conscientious, brave, smart and cool. He may not get to play a neurotic mess, but he is playing a real-life type of character, and shows that he doesn’t need CGI or special effects to show us pain, grief, brains and warmth all in one scene.

“So you don’t know if you’re awake, or dreaming?” — Dr. Lee

The major drawback to this show will be the difficulty in keeping straight which world Michael is in at any given moment. In aid of that, the producers have taken a page from Fringe, and colored the different worlds. There are none-too-subtle hints that tell you which world Michael is in, from celery colored walls to orange pitchers, to the red and green arm bands Michael wears in each world. In one scene in the pilot, Michael loses the band and loses his cool when he cannot immediately determine which reality he’s in. It’s the closest he comes to that psychotic break Dr. Lee seems to think is inevitable. Other problems with the show might include the all-too-common mistake of casting an actress to play Michael’s wife who looks young enough to be his daughter, raising all kinds of uncomfortable moments in the mind of viewers. Finally, the quotidian nature of police procedural itself may work against a show which relies on the gee-whiz factor to bring in viewers; there’s not a lot of gee-whiz left in detective stories. This is a show about a man working his way through stunning loss, not a show about cover-ups in high places. God help the show if the producers, in desperation, tack on a conspiracy “mythology”.

“For me, the room upstairs isn’t empty.” — Michael Britten

Awake debuted to a skimpy 1.9 share of adults in the 18-49 rating, with 6.3 million viewers. The second episode dropped 20% from that, to a 1.6 share and only 4.25 million viewers. This would seem to bode ill for the series, except that it’s still a higher debut than The Firm or Prime Suspect, both of which debuted in that timeslot to lower numbers, and both of which are now gone.

Copyright 2012 by Sarah Stegall. All rights reserved.