01 Jun, 2012 - Rebecca Martin
It started with LOST.
It was a revelation: Action-packed, prime time adventure television could be really, really good. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my fair share of T.V. storylines that boast big explosions rather than fine character development. But in the last decade, a number of shows have given us attempts at something more thoughtful, connected, purposeful. Lost’s six-season run saw Thursday morning staff meetings derailed in favor of speculation over the Man in Black and the contents of the hatch. Lexicon-altering statements like “I really like Sawyer’s arc” were fodder for conversation at the local coffee shop and on Facebook comment strings.
And then it ended. Whatever devoted viewers thought about the series conclusion, one thing was common: We missed Jack. We missed Sawyer. Some of us even missed Kate. We missed the anticipation of a new episode and the slow unraveling of a mystery. We missed the discussions and arguments and blog posts the next morning. We missed gathering around a story.
Every season since, my husband and I have eagerly scanned the headlines, watched for previews, and kept our eye on the internet. What new show might spin us such an engaging yarn? It was sure to happen again, now that T.V. knew what it was doing. Right? Some shows were promising. Touch was a maybe. Alcatraz had potential. (It had Hurley!) Terra Nova had us hanging in for five hopeful episodes. Once Upon a Time’s fairy tale feature cloyed too heavily, though some argued it was well done. What each of these shows had in common was admirable: they attempted story telling on a large scale, complete with character, mystery, and a meta-story rising above each individual episode’s plot. But none of them struck gold.
Until February 2012, when T.V. reviews highlighted a show about to premier – when? – this very week! Awake. It promised that lurking fantasy element, dark visuals, psychological guesswork, strong acting. The potential was huge. We were hopeful. We were not disappointed.
A detective crime drama is a detective crime drama, right? Wrong; oh, so happily wrong. When we meet L.A. Detective Michael Britten, a car crash has already killed his wife – or did it kill his son? Detective Britten’s reality has fractured in two. Regular viewers can no doubt recite the opening sequence, in which Britten explains, “I’m awake with my wife and I close my eyes. I open them, and I’m awake with my son.” One of his two alternate therapists, acted by 24’s Cherry Jones, declares, “Well, I can assure you, Detective Britten, this is not a dream.” Of course, Britten comes back with “That’s what the other shrink said.” The audience is left to conjecture what is actually going on. There is no smoke monster, but the pervasive mystery of Britten’s alternate realities is just as compelling.
Which is where the consistent complexity of the show gets really smart. This bigger mystery is as engaging as the individual crimes Britten solves each week. The crimes themselves are carefully constructed, informing each other in a way that enables Britten to solve each episode’s drama across realities, much to the confusion of his family and colleagues. Best of all, the individual crimes always augment either Britten’s or the viewers’ understanding of what’s going on in the larger story. The individual, well-crafted subplots serve the larger narrative.
But now the word on the internet is that Awake isn’t returning. We’d feared it all along. When we mentioned the show to friends, we got blank responses. So what was the problem?
Surely we can get past Jason Isaacs as the despicable Lucius Malfoy of the Harry Potter movies. It’s true Isaacs has less pretty appeal than, say, Lost’s Matthew Fox. But this is a minor hurdle, easily overcome after watching Isaacs last year as gritty private investigator Jackson Brodie in Masterpiece Mystery’s Case Histories. The actor carries over most of the intensity and all the squinty-eyed goodness of the darker Masterpiece show into the similarly dark and grimy Awake. His acting as Detective Britten is subtle and superb.
And the writing! How many ways are there to evolve an episode? Thirteen, apparently. Whether the episode’s individual concern is restoring trust between husband and wife, bettering understanding between father and son, or Britten questioning his own psychological stability, each stands out as a fresh, creative take on the same scenario – is he waking, or his he sleeping? Impressively, the show never – or rarely – confuses between the two alternate realities: quite the feat, considering the amount of detail and character crossover between Britten’s waking worlds. All this while providing engaging new perspectives on Britten’s sleep situation each week. The writing that develops Britten’s tale is unfailingly creative. Kudos to Kyle Killen.
And then there is the affirmation of committed, supportive family (which Terra Nova did pretty well, too). The relationships between the characters are realistically flawed and believably hopeful, and you’re behind the family all the way. You want their relationships to grow, strengthen, heal – and, in slow, realistic ways, they do. How satisfying. The directing is nuanced enough to catch Isaacs’ subtle expressions, and it’s straightforward enough to remain easily entertaining. Throw in the mildly creepy psychological mystery of Britten’s dual worlds, and the question looms: why did Awake doze under the radar? Why did a meta-arc show like Awake lose viewers to shows like the Mentalist that tend to present stand-alone episodes?
Maybe Awake’s failure comes down to poor advertising, or poor time slot placement. But I also think there’s something here that we, as viewers, don’t know we’re ready for. The show’s premise, by its very nature, requires a series-length story arc, which means the individual crime dramas that come and go will ultimately take a backseat to the larger story. So I wouldn’t recommend tuning in at, say, episode seven. Britten returns over and over to Ricky’s Tacos fast food joint; the mystery doesn’t really go anywhere; there’s not even a murder! Taken on its own, this might be slow, dim, boring stuff. But the beauty of the meta arc show is that the very strength of the premise gives its characters and their stories room to stretch, breath, grow, and be believable. The downside is that this isn’t a hit-or-miss show. It calls for commitment to weekly watching.
Back in the LOST days, circa seasons two and three, there was a lot of grumbling. The story had gotten off-balance, and viewers complained. Nothing has been explained for episodes in a row! This week’s episode moved far too slowly! What are the writers thinking? Do they even know what they’re thinking?! Perhaps the grumblers were watching in the wrong way. NCIS, say, or Person of Interest, might stand up to episode-by-episode viewership, but LOST demanded a different kind of attentiveness. Think Great Expectations, The Brothers Karamazov, The Great Gatsby. Are there slow moments? Sometimes. Is every scene just as interesting as the one before? Not always. Is each chapter essential to the whole? If it’s a well-told story, absolutely. We keep reading, and we trust the story is going somewhere worthwhile. Likewise, with LOST, with Awake, we keep watching. The larger narrative continues, and if we’re in it for the long haul, we’ll be rewarded with a cohesive story that rises above each episode.
The difficulty is we’re a culture that likes to be entertained. From Aristotle to Franz Kafka to C.S. Lewis, there are theories and disagreements over the elements that make for good story: plot, characterization, mood. On all these counts, Awake holds strong. Perhaps too strong. Maybe we just don’t know a good thing when it looks at us out of the television screen. We’ve had too much immediate gratification from slick, super-cool people blowing things up. (Not that I didn’t enjoy the explosive season finale of Person of Interest. Or the blazing series ending of House, which straddles the line between individual- and meta-narrative shows.) We’re not used to engaging with televised story for the long haul like we might commit to a novel.
Of course, there weren’t many Awake episodes amongst the thirteen that even required such a patient response; the story didn’t get the chance to develop that far. It’s too bad. Because, in the language of the Losties, I’d like to see the rest of Detective Britten’s arc. It was only at its beginning, and his outlook was more than promising.
Detective Britten’s tale has been told now. Whatever those of us who watched the season/series finale on May 24th thought about his last moments, I think his brief existence signals hope: Hope that storytelling like this can exist on TV. Hope that Americans haven’t altogether forgotten how to receive story. Hope that we can learn again how to watch, interpret, think, dream. As a reader, a writer, a mom, an engager of culture, I’m heartened.
We can only hope the networks will agree and keep taking chances on strong meta-narrative. And maybe, next time, more of us will be watching.