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A Wake for 'Awake'
May 12, 2012  | By Eric Gould  | 15 comments

I awoke Friday morning to write about this high-concept show I've been eagerly following, looking forward to the two-part season finale, only to read what seemed a nightmare headline. But it was real. Awake had been cancelled by NBC after one season...

Awake was a little off-beat, maybe even somewhat difficult to engage. But really? Was it? The series started with Detective Michael Britten driving off the road and crashing with his wife and son in the car. He awakens each day to find himself in one of two worlds, each seeming as real as the other. One day, his wife has been killed in the accident and his son has survived. The next night he goes to sleep and, in the morning, awakens to find the reverse has happened — his son had been lost and his wife very much alive.

Every time he awakens he travels back and forth between the two worlds. The question is, which one is the dream and which one is reality?

It was a tantalizing scenario, with Detective Britten (Jason Isaacs) seeing different psychiatrists in each parallel experience. Each of them say the other world is a fabrication of his dreaming life, that it is his subconsciousness trying to cope with the death of his wife. Or, his son.

Viewers were embedded in Britten's world, trying to unravel the mystery while also being led through some very deep, instructive turns about our perception of reality, and the ways humans cope with adversity. Producer Kyle Killen's unusual idea also involved a pretty decent cop story as part of its companion structure.

Killen, you might recall, has a thing for double lives. His ill-fated series, Lonestar — a story about a con-man leading a double life of bigamy — was pulled from Fox last year after just two episodes.

Lonestar wasn't that bad, and Awake might have been great. We'll never know. And it's a shame, too, because scripted shows that take risks and go into fresh territory don't come around that often.

The brilliance of the Awake metaphor was that Detective Britten's two lives aren't all that out of the ordinary, as many of us walk around with alternative stories playing in our own heads. Yes, there's the dreaming life, but there are also the turns untaken because of loss, circumstance and events that cannot be avoided. Those are the lives un-lived, only to be imagined.

And let's not forget daydreams. Each of those untravelled roads has a what-might-have-been script and voice of its own that we habitually visit. Awake tapped into that internal life, that internal dialog, in a very intimate, provocative way, much in the way that Vanilla Sky probed it in 2001.

Jason Isaacs (Brotherhood, the Harry Potter series) was a brilliant choice for a leading actor. He has an even, meditative voice which was perfect for characterizing the possible dreaming state of both worlds. And it was encouraging, for once, to see a leading actor who does not look like he had been cast from a GQ ad. He is a bit roughly un-pretty, and his ordinariness was another level of credibility that allowed us to engage the show on its own ground.

The art direction was also beautifully understated, with one of the Britten lives slightly tinted green, the other slightly orange, so we always knew which life we were in.

We may never know which waking life was the authentic one, unless there is a resolution already in the cards for season one -- or if Killen shot additional scenes that provide additional insight into Detective Britten's experience. (Although we may have to wait for extra, or re-edited material in a DVD release to come.) If so, they might give firm enough clues to please those viewers who thought the orange life was the real one, or to those who believed the green life was real.

My sense is that both will be satisfied. There have been so many simple, inventive turns in Awake's well-written detective stories that it really would not be surprising if the final turn is that Detective Britten has been suspended in some momentary purgatory and has seen branched-lives ahead in a flash (à la Lost), and has not even survived the accident.

That would not be disappointing, and hopefully, we'll either have that or some other twist that will give some resolution to the story.

First year shows that got cancelled such as The Playboy Club, The River and The Firm won't be missed. They were blips — rehashed, middling ideas built more on style, than substance.

But Awake wasn't one of them.

Maybe, given the annual roll out of derivative shows, the real surprise here is not that Awake got put to sleep. It might be that it got made at all.

All we can do as an audience is watch when networks get it right and keep tuning in. Until then, I guess it's back to America's Next Top Model.

That got renewed.

The final two episodes of Awake will air Thursday, May 17 and Thursday, May 24 at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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May 26, 2012   |  Reply
Harry Yudenfriend
Why didn't David Bianculli like it enough to place on the "Best Bets?"
I liked this show a lot and will miss it. Hopefully they go out with a classy ending.
May 20, 2012   |  Reply
NBC...looks like the same people who produce tabloid newspapers are in charge over there. They cancelled Life after a mere two seasons, and that too was a fabulous scripted drama with an excellent cast. No more Community, 30 Rock, or Parks and Recreation? Great drama and good comedy make way for yet another season of ridiculous been-there done-that sitcoms (The New Normal? A direct rip-off of ABC's Modern Family) and reality shows. UGH! The Today Show has gone the way of tabloids too. Give me CBS in the a.m. and PBS in the p.m. At least I still have one more episode of Sherlock this season.
May 17, 2012   |  Reply
Angela - Point taken; my other intolerable loss, "Rubicon" on AMC in 2010, is still not available. So don't erase those DVR'd episodes...
May 15, 2012   |  Reply
Will it even make it to DVD release? If so, I just my buy my first DVD set ever if for no other reason than to support Kyle Killen and hope that somehow he'll know we want to see what else he's thinking about putting on TV.
May 14, 2012   |  Reply
Please add me to the list of people attending the wake for Awake. It was one of the few shows I really looked forward to watching along with Breaking Bad, Justified, Mad Men, the new Sherlock, and Downton Abby. What better company could Awake have been in? None! I will sign petitions.
May 14, 2012   |  Reply
May 14, 2012   |  Reply
BL - There are a number of petitions going around online to send to NBC and ask them to reinstate the show. Here's one: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/453/746/261/bring-awake-back/
And there are others to be found by searching on Google. But I kind of like Nan's idea -- that TNT or some other channel pick up the show, and give it the safety and venue it needs. --EG
May 14, 2012
Shall I daydream that a savvy cable station picks up this terrific, engaging, emotional show? One can hope.
May 14, 2012   |  Reply
Nan - Yes, let's do! TNT picked up an NBC castaway, "Southland" which just got renewed for it's third year away from The Peacock. So let's wake with that in mind. --EG
May 14, 2012
Mary: I think NBC's decision to hold "Awake" for a spring premiere (while somewhat understandable, since it may have been an effort to showcase the show) also backfired on them...and helped doom it. Really glad to have seen this kind of show come to production, however.
May 14, 2012   |  Reply
Mary McNally
I am very disappointed that Awake did not get renewed. It was one of the few series programs I watch, because of the unique story line, the excellent actors, the believable stories. Why did NBC not give this show enough time to catch on? It was one of the best.
May 14, 2012   |  Reply
All: "Awake" had a compelling tone, credible actors, and took us in unique directions. It should have been rewarded and promoted, rather than axed. --EG
May 13, 2012   |  Reply
I hate this time of year in the TV season. R.I.P Awake and all the other series that didn't make it this year.
May 13, 2012   |  Reply
I loved this show. So original, but still grounded in real life. I was hoping they weren't going to go for the lame "in a coma dreaming all this" ending, but I guess now I'll never know. Damn! Great cast, great show.
May 13, 2012   |  Reply
"But AWAKE wasn't one of them"
You are so right! When will we see another show of this caliber on TV again?
May 13, 2012   |  Reply
Agreed. This is too bad. Even Wilmer Valderrama is good in this show.
May 13, 2012   |  Reply
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