Why You Should Be Watching “Awake”

I had little interest in watching Awake on NBC.

I was like… ennh. Okay. Another cop show. This time — with a twist! He’s split between two realities! Or something! I don’t care! I want ice cream and tacos! Fuck yeah! Woo!

Further, I was still a little butt-chapped by NBC’s decision to shelve Community.

Except, then they unshelved Community. Earning a little good will.

Then they started showing promos for Awake.

Jason Isaacs as a detective who loses his wife and/or his son in a car accident — every night he goes to sleep and wakes up in a reality where one or the other survived. But it wasn’t the premise that sold me. The promos revealed a thoughtful, mature show that possessed a gimmick but did not rely upon it.

I knew something was up when my wife saw the promo, said, “Oh, that looks good.”

Suddenly, my interest was piqued.

And last night, I finally got around to watching the DVR’ed pilot episode.

You need to be watching this show.

A Show Written By Writers

That sounds strange, I know. “Chuck, aren’t all TV shows written by writers, you smeg-mouthed dope-donkey?” First: how rude. Second: technically, yes, writers write all shows. But that doesn’t mean they’re the ones in control. Or that what they wrote ends up on the screen. Hollywood offers an ecosystem whereby a great many individuals with absolutely zero sense of good storytelling get to call the shots.

This is not that show.

The show steps out of the gate and in the dialogue makes clear that it’s paying attention to the laws of good storytelling. The one shrink in the one reality tells Michael Britten (Isaacs) to start at the beginning. But the main character says “No, let’s start right now.” Meaning, we’re not going to get a dumptruck of back-chatter and exposition dumped on our heads. We’re going to move through the story where it is now, and get details when we need them — and never before.

Sharp dialogue, strong plotting, damaged characters? This is a writer’s show. (And here my bias as a writer is made clear: any show with quality components and strong story is, to me, a writer’s show.)

The Lost Vibe

I remember watching the first episode of Lost and finding myself more and more transfixed — and pleasantly bewildered — by what was going on. Up until that point where Charlie utters that famous line: “Guys… where are we?” Then, DOOSH: the Lost logo hit and there I was left blinking and wondering just how a show this sublime snuck past the bouncers in TV-Land. (How Lost ended up is a discussion for another time.)

When I watched Awake, I got the same vibe — the same freaky frequency drew me closer. All these little twists and uncertainties and slow reveals. I saw there thinking, “What is happening? What’s really going on?”

They took a very simple concept — plane crash on an island, cop pinballs between two realities (one of which may be a dream) — and gave it to us with subtlety and grace. With a focus on character and story above the contrivance of plot or the cleverness of the logline and yet while still promising that what you’re seeing is (as the therapist played by B.D. Wong puts it) just the tip of an iceberg.

Could it go off the rails?

Sure. Any show could.

But I like having a show so firmly on the rails first, and this is very much that.

Jason Isaacs

Isaacs is, to me, the devil. He plays bad very well. It’s not just Malfoy. It’s Admiral Zhao, or the guy from The Patriot. Isaacs is a chilly, scary dude. So to have him come out of the gate with this protagonist — who feels equally chilly here but yet contains a core of warmth and soul — who you care about so strongly from the get-go, well, it’s a win for me.

Rare To Find A Show That Demands Patience

I’ve no idea if the show will reward that patience — I’m not a haruspex, tearing the intestinal wire from forth my television to examine it for glimpses of the future — but I do know that the show is demanding my patience, which to me is a feature and not a bug. I like a show that wants me to sit down and go for the ride. I don’t want a story to pander to me, to shake its moneymaker in a desperate grab to keep my attention between commercial breaks. This is a show that’s subtle, that’s got nuance, that is asking me to chill the fuck out while it tells me the story it needs to tell.

Again, will it reward? No idea.

But if the pilot is any indication, we’re at least in for an earnest attempt.

You can catch up on the pilot (if it’s still live at the time of this linking) here.

And the show airs tomorrow night (Thurs) at 10pm. Check it.

18 responses to “Why You Should Be Watching “Awake””

  1. I loved the first episode. It is the first time in a long time that I think I will actually follow a show week to week instead of a season behind.

  2. Jason Isaacs has been playing very good guys very well on the BBC over the past few years, so no suprise that he’s so excellent in this role. He’s capable of enormous nuance in his performances.
    And HE should have been the new Bond, not Daniel Craig. He even looks like Fleming’s description of the character, and he can effortlessly walk the line(s) between ice-cold, tough, tender and sexy.

  3. Ah man! Why can’t they show these great shows in Australia? We only get 8 channels. We told that to some Americans once and they looked at us and laughed!

  4. I saw the trailers for this, and I was hoping it would be as good as it looked. Now all I have to do is wait for three years and buy the entire series on DVD to watch all in one go.

  5. I agree with all that is mentioned above, but sadly I feel like this is one that will not get the attention it deserves from the mainstream or LCD which means it will probably be off the air soon. I hope that I am wrong…

  6. “Isaacs is, to me, the devil.”

    After I watched this pilot, this is almost exactly what I told my husband. He was Captain Hook/Mr. Darling, too, in the recent live version of Peter Pan. Did great as Darling, but was a terrifying Hook. Him as a cop, just seems weird.

    I have a theory that it’ll end up that he was in a coma the whole time, and reality seeped through with people talking around him or the tv in his hospital room or something, but the mind games the show has started with are really interesting.

  7. I really liked it as well. The police procedural part was just meh–not bad, but not gripping in its own way. But that’s a much easier part to fix, and I could see why they would not want the case(s) to take center stage in the first ep.

    The last line of the first ep was an absolute emotional gut-punch given they way the wife’s character developed.

  8. Holy String Theory, Batman!

    I hadn’t even heard of this show, but gave it a peek. Damned impressive.

    With a bucketload of shows out there without any balls, this one just whipped out a massive pair of gorilla testes and just dropped them on the kitchen table.

    I’m so in.

  9. I dunno. I’m getting *really* tired of the “take a bog-standard 45-minute police procedural and add a weird twist” trend — it’s just lazy shorthand for coming up with actual SF/Fantasy/Horror TV.

    Tired. Oh so very tired.

    See here: Alcatraz, Grimm, New Amsterdam… hell, fucking “Automan” and “Manimal”, for that matter.

    It seems that all Hollywood knows is how to write police procedurals, so when they want to branch off into other “hot trends”, they clumsily bolt that format onto whatever genre they view as exploitable in the moment.

  10. I watched the pilot episode because of Jason Isaacs. The first time I was aware of Isaacs, he was playing an Australian journalist in West Wing. Probably the nicest character he’s ever portrayed. I hope they do not screw this up, because I was totally hooked. Totally.

  11. I liked the show as well, but more for the fact that they set up the two shrinks in a way that both make such perfect sense while they’re talking that their reality HAS to be the true one.

    Also, as person constantly annoyed by stupid mistakes made with guns on TV shows and movies, I was really impressed that the first thing he did after realizing the shot came from someone other than who he thought, was to flip on the safety. Granted, he had it on outside the trailer a bit later, and it probably shouldn’t have been. But given that I’ve seen actors thumb the non-existent hammer on a Glock, AND the sound guys dubbed in the sound to match the action, I’ll let that slide.

    I do miss Prime Suspect though. This is the show that replaced it. I just hope the network will leave it alone long enough to see if it all holds up. I’d hate to see it Fireflyied or Pushing Daisied.

  12. Thx for the heads up – I watched the second show last night – just as good as the pilot. I like the police cases being kept back a bit, the story is more about the two lives and parallels/differences. Well written – well shot too.

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