Thursday, March 8, 2012

It’s Mourning in America: NBC’s Awake

Jason Isaacs stars in Awake, on NBC.

Tonight, NBC will air the second episode of Awake, its new fantasy-crime drama from writer/creator Kyle Killen. Awake tells the story of Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), a police detective finally returning to work after surviving the tragic car accident which claimed the life of Rex, his teenage son (Dylan Minnette). Or was it his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen) who died that night? Actually, it was neither. Or, perhaps more precisely, both. As we quickly discover, Britten has been living in two realities since night of the accident: he goes to bed at night with his wife sleeping beside him, and wakes up the next morning in bed alone, with his son sleeping down the hall. The series follows Britten as he slips back and forth between these two universes, one in which his son is mourning the loss of his mother and another in which his wife is mourning the loss of their son. It is an ambitious and challenging premise, and it was masterfully executed, in writing, acting, and direction – and if the pilot is any indication, it promises to be one of the most ambitious and creative new dramas of the television season.

Death is a part of all of our lives but television has a rather mixed history of representing it, rarely addressing the realities of death and mourning with any depth or substance in its regular programming. There is a real irony of course to this observation, because if anything death and dying are omnipresent in TV storytelling. Nothing is more dramatic than a death – which is why dramas tend to save the killing off of a main character for season finales or sweeps weeks. And the dominance of crime and mystery shows means that for some series, deaths are a weekly necessity. The average episode of The Mentalist or Law & Order: SVU requires one or more dead bodies for every story they tell. Tragic deaths or an unsolved murder are common fodder to back stories of many detectives (think of Adrian Monk’s late wife on Monk, or Detective Beckett’s murdered mother on Castle). But for all the regularity of death as trope, dying is rarely portrayed with any weight or realism. Consider how uncommon it is for a regular character to die without having his/her death foreshadowed by unsubtle and often uncharacteristically redemptive acts or by the timely resolution of all moral ambiguities. (You can see death coming a mile away the moment a normally evasive character is suddenly honest, or finally reveals their true feelings. Nothing seems to invite a bullet more than a sudden confession of love!) To die on television means having the chance to discharge all unpaid debts and say all your goodbyes. Most of the more popular shows devoted to death (Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under is a powerful exception) are devoted to explicitly denying death’s reality. The eventual punch line of Lost comes to mind, as does the inexplicably popular series Ghost Whisperer, which was almost entirely dedicated to undoing the deathness of death altogether, giving opportunities to the dead and the living to finally put their anguish to bed once and for all. But in reality, death never comes at the right time – especially for those who live in the aftermath – and grief knows no calendar. Ghost Whisperer replaces the stark realities of surviving the death of loved ones with consoling narratives which purport to fill all gaps, which allow both the dead and the living to forgive the unforgiven, and plaster over irredeemable regret with empty tropes of life everlasting.

Col. Blake's final scene on M*A*S*H.
In life (as opposed to television), death is always unexpected, undeserved, and premature. Death is a strange country for most of us – until, of course, suddenly it isn’t. And even when it comes, it lives like a stranger among us, refusing easy consolation and definite meaning. Television has intermittently proven itself capable of gesturing beyond its narrative limitations. Henry Blake’s shocking off-screen death over the Sea of Japan at the end of the third season of M*A*S*H was unprecedented not only because it was so unexpected, but because it was so unnecessary. It would take more than 25 years before network television offered another death of comparable impact, with Buffy’s discovery of her mother’s body at the end of a particularly goofy episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and with the rightfully celebrated episode that follows. Buffy’s Joss Whedon does admittedly have a particular knack for killing off main characters, a practice he’s continued into Buffy’s afterlife as a comic series. (Spoilers prevent me from revealing who didn’t survive “Season Eight”, but suffice it to say that the death has been having stark repercussions in the current “season” of the comic.) These shocking, often pointless and meaningless kinds of dying come closest to representing how death is survived for all of us. Another particularly entertaining and original series was Dead Like Me (2003-2004), Bryan Fuller’s (Pushing Daisies) short-lived Showtime series. The dark comedy stars Ellen Muth as George Lass, an 18-year-old who dies in a freak accident in the show’s opening minutes only to find herself arbitrarily drafted as a grim reaper, obliged to witness and participate in the equally meaningless deaths of others. Its fantastic conceit and satirical tone notwithstanding, the show actually allowed for one of television’s few sustained narratives on the painful intricacies of the mourning process, as both George and her surviving family struggle to live on after her death.

All of this goes a long way to explaining why I was so excited when I first heard about Kyle Killen’s new series. During pilot season last summer, the show (originally titled REM) was regularly making the critics’ “Most Anticipated” lists, and it was disappointing to hear that its premiere would be delayed until the second half of the season. The structure of the series intrigued me and I was eager to see how Awake would address the challenge of telling two parallel but unrelated stories in every episode. The solution, it turned out, is fascinating in itself. As Britten tells one of his two therapists, he himself has trouble remembering which reality he is in at any given moment, and so he’s taken to wearing a coloured rubber band on his wrist: red for the reality in which he’s lost his son, green for the one in which he’s lost his wife. As a reflection of this, the series has colour-coded each reality accordingly: the wife’s world is tinted red, and the son’s world is tinted green. And if that weren’t enough to help viewers keep track, each reality has an almost completely different cast. Britten has two therapists (BD Wong in the red world, Cherry Jones in the green world), two different partners (Steve Harris in one, and an almost unrecognizably restrained Wilmer Valderrama in the other). Each of these creative choices goes a long way to negotiating Awake’s tricky narrative conceit, and all together work particularly well. This show is a perfect illustration of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We follow Britten from one reality to the next, from one morning to the next, and it comes together in a way that is human, dramatic, and (belying its unbelievable premise) entirely real.

Dylan Minnette and Jason Isaacs.

Isaacs, who played Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, is entirely compelling in the main role of Michael Britten. There’s a brief scene in the pilot where Britten wakes up, expecting to find his wife beside him, and she’s not there. And neither is his son, Rex. For a few seconds, we watch a man face the entirely real possibility that he’s lost his entire family. (The lighting in the scene is agonizingly neutral – not quite reddish, not quite greenish – blocking even the viewer from any comforting solace. The skill with which the director works with all those elements – visually, emotionally – is just plain impressive.) It is a messy, literally bloody scene and it hits hard. That the show was capable of that, only 30 minutes into a new series, is testament to the talent that goes into this show, both in front of and behind the camera.

What the pilot promises is a high-concept show which is extremely comfortable with the complex world it has built. The real story begins, fascinatingly, not with the immediate aftermath of the car accident or with the beginnings of this strange phenomenon, but instead only once Britten has returned to work, and when his department mandated therapy sessions begin. As a result, viewers don’t see Britten’s initial reaction to the deaths, nor (remarkably) do we witness his first experiences of the reality shifts. We enter the story only once Britten has found a certain kind of equilibrium – both with the deaths, and with the strange phenomenon he’s experiencing. This creative decision has the powerful effect of underplaying the fantastic nature of the shifting universes Britten inhabits, and bringing the narrative quickly down to the emotional level. The show is about Britten and his worlds – both inner and outer.

Awake’s most promising feature is also one of its most original: a main character that experiences death without actually having to suffer loss. Through Britten we are also given access to his son and his wife Hannah, providing ample opportunities to work through their difference responses to those deaths. The show – because we still do have two central characters suffering loss in a very real way (a son who has lost his mother; a mother who has lost her son) – can literally have it both ways. It can go deeper in those storylines, without following them into either clichéd or maudlin scenarios. Notably, Dylan Minnette’s portrayal of Rex, Britten’s son, is already a refreshingly mature characterization of a teenage boy. Until I saw the pilot, I’d almost forgotten how rare it is on television to see a teen actually in touch with his emotions!

Laura Allen as Hannah Britten
I don’t expect this show is going be a lengthy treatise on mourning, nor would I want it to be. It is, after all, also a crime drama. For all the metaphysical complications of the show’s premise, Britten is still a police detective. His unique experience gives him regular insight into the cases he is tasked to solve, as clues from one reality’s crime become relevant in the other. And here at least the show is treading somewhat familiar ground: the cop with special knowledge or abilities that he can’t share with his partner (think Detective Burkhardt on Grimm or Sam Tyler on Life on Mars). Awake also comes with the additional challenge of telling two completely different crime stories in every episode, which do admittedly make both investigations feel a bit rushed, at least in the pilot.

In fact, I am hoping the best analogue for the series will be BBC's Life on Mars – another crime drama with a complicated conceit, almost flawlessly realized. Life on Mars succeeded because it took its complex premise, its stories, and its characters seriously – all at the same time. The BBC series would not have been the show it was if it has regularly sacrificed emotional truth on the altar of fantasy. Unlike Life on Mars (and its premise of a 21st century police detective thrown back in time to 1973), here we have a main character with every incentive to run from any solution to his “problem”. As Britten says after one of his therapists in the pilot proposes that the healthy way to work through Britten’s situation is to decide once and for all which world was real: “I'll come see you and talk to you as long as they make me, but when it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make any progress.” This leads me to suspect that the series won’t be expending too much energy building up the metaphysical scaffolding of the series, preferring to focus more on story and interpersonal relationships. (By the way, especially in light of the surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the Life on Mars universe proposed by its sequel series Ashes to Ashes, let me just say now: Michael Britten better not be in a coma. It would no doubt “make sense” but I would prefer to have the fantastic elements remain completely mysterious rather than go that route!)

One of the biggest stories from last year’s television season was about the best show that nobody watched. The critics loved Kyle Killen’s Lone Star pilot, praising its complex narrative structure and ambitious writing. And then the show has the misfortune of premiering opposite the season premiere of Dancing with the Stars and the most over-promoted new series of the year, The Event (a show seemingly designed in a lab with the sole purpose of scooping up Lost fans still wandering the TV dial in the months after its finale). The Event struggled through its 22-episode first season, losing large chunks of its market share with every episode until NBC finally pulled its plug, and Lone Star was infamously cancelled somewhere partway through its second episode. With Awake, Killen has once again been given an unenviable timeslot – Thursday at 10, on the heels of NBC’s comedy programming block, a slot which has already suffered two casualties this season (Prime Suspect and The Firm) – so there’s a good chance you weren’t watching last week. If not, do yourself a favour and track it down before the airing of tonight’s second episode. The series, in its own quirky way, is about second chances, and so fittingly there’s still time and opportunity to watch the stunning pilot episode: streaming on NBC’s website for Americans and on Global’s site for our Canadian readers. Do it, and you’ll not only be watching one of the most ambitious and original new shows on television, you’ll also perhaps be guaranteeing that the series will survive long enough to fulfill its enormous promise.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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