Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Awake

A few months ago I read a long piece about the TV show Awake in the New Yorker which proclaimed it as the future of network television. I did not find the piece particularly convincing and I was somewhat alarmed to discover that Awake was written by the man who wrote the misconceived Mel Gibson vehicle The Beaver. The premise of the show is this: A homicide detective awakes from a car accident to discover that his life has been split into two realities. In one he and his wife survived the accident, in the other he and his son lived. In one reality he is grieving for his dead wife, in the other he's grieving for his dead son. The protagonist played by Jason Isaacs returns to work and in each episode he attempts to solve two murders, one in each reality. One of the realities is either a dream or a hallucination or maybe there is some kind of weird conspiracy going on. This is not that original an idea as the gimmick is almost identical to the gimmick they pulled on Life On Mars and Life On Mars didn't work in the end because they never really thought through the arc of their story. (Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes had two separate endings, neither of which really made any sense at all. The American version of Life On Mars had a third ending which didn't make sense either.) 
...
In a way there is no point talking about Awake at all because it is certain to be cancelled by NBC in the next few weeks. Pace the New Yorker the critical reviews have been mixed and the ratings have been disastrous. But before Awake disappears forever into TV hell I decided to watch the pilot episode on iTunes. 
...
Ok so what did I think? Well the first thing to say is that this is not a show that should have been made on network TV. 40 minutes is not long enough to hit the story points of a conspiracy and to solve two different police procedurals. It would be tough to do all this in an hour on HBO but on NBC each homicide investigation gets about 15 minutes tops of screen time which is less even than on Law and Order. Everything feels very rushed and not in a good way. On the plus side I liked Jason Isaacs in the lead and the supporting cast was ok if a bit lacking in charisma. There are two therapists in the two realities, one of whom tries to nurture Isaacs, while the other is more confrontational and I really liked this idea. As I say I felt the stories were all a bit too hasty and I also wonder if it was a good idea to go this dark this early on Awake which begins with an Elizabeth Smart style rape and abduction of a child. 
...
There was one clever moment on Awake that really got my attention however and that was when Isaacs was talking to his therapist and wondering if his reality was all a dream. She considers this, goes to the web and prints out a copy of the US Constitution and asks him to read a piece of it at random. He reads an obscure passage and then the therapist asks him how its possible that he could gain knowledge of something he had never read before in a dream. In dreams you can't acquire new information you can only process information you already had. I enjoyed this scene very much because I've had exactly the same experience in my dreams.  When I've been suspicious in my dream that I was actually in a dream I've tried to read books that I know I haven't actually read and every single time the incongruity has woken me up. I know this isn't a dream that I'm having right now because with a couple of clicks I can go to Project Gutenburg and read a page or two of the Encyclopedia of Needlework or the Castle of Otranto books I'm pretty sure I have never read before (of course I can't be metaphysically certain). I thought that Jason Isaacs would immediately raise this issue with the more confrontational therapist in the other reality but (at least in the pilot episode) he did not. Maybe this has been solved already in the episodes I havent seen but if not I hope that NBC gives the creators of Awake a few weeks notice before they pull the plug so that they can come up with a plausible solution for this nice epistemological conundrum.