We watched the pilot of Awake last night. (Free download on iTunes!) I follow a number of TV critics on Twitter and all of them have been waxing rhapsodic about this show, so I definitely had to check it out.
Having watched it, I know why they really like it. And unless something changes drastically in the next episode — not even the next couple of episodes, but the next episode; welcome to the reality of TV these days — I can also tell you why it’s doomed.
Awake is the story of Michael Britten, a homicide detective who was in a car accident with his wife and son. Since the accident, his life has split: he spends one day in a world where his wife lived and his son died; then he goes to sleep at night and wakes up in a world where his son lived and his wife died. You can tell which world he’s in because everything is either tinted very slightly green or very slightly red. There’s no mention of what happens if he takes a nap.
That, right there, is why this show is doomed.
While watching the show Darin said, “I got it. It’s Life On Mars meets Traffic. And the main character’s the one who actually died, right?”
I said, “That’s the most popular theory.” I’m not ruining anything for you there; if you look at Alan Sepinwall’s blog or Ken Tucker’s blog, everyone’s guessing that Michael Britten is the one who died in the car crash. It’s kind of like the trailer for The Sixth Sense: the kid says “I see dead people” as he’s staring at Bruce Willis.
“I hope they’ve come up with something better than that then,” Darin said.
The viewing audience has seen more hours of narrative storytelling than were available in the entire history of the world up until a few decades ago. If you present the audience with a puzzle, they’re going to try to figure it out, and they’ve had lots of practice. If you make the solution an easy and obvious puzzle, they’re going to say, “Seriously, that’s all it is?” Because one viewer might be stupid, but collectively they’re pretty damn smart.
So, at the very least, you have to give them a fun ride until you get to the conclusion.
The two most obvious shows to compare this to are Life On Mars and Lost. Both of which dealt with fairly heavy issues (c’mon, a plane crash! these people’s lives were complete messes! how were they gonna survive!) — as I joked when I watched it a number of years ago, Life On Mars really did have the most feel-good ending ever! — and they had puzzling situations that may or may not have resolved to viewers’s satisfaction.
Both of them also had a sense of humor.
Which Awake sure as hell did not during the pilot. Oh my God, it was so somber and dreary. Everything was so serious. It was like an entire symphony played in a minor scale. Newsflash: Nobody wants to tune into a show that’s a damn downer in every way every week.
I kept thinking about the scene in Lost where things go terribly wrong with the dynamite, and it’s both shocking and sad, because a character we liked got killed. Later, when Hurley says, “You’ve got some Arzt on you,” it’s both tragic and hilarious. We’re not happy the guy is dead, for crying out loud, but that line was funny.
A guy sitting in not one but two therapists’ offices (newsflash: therapy sessions are a lot less interesting than writers want everyone to believe) being somber and upset about the fact that he’s either a)living in two universes or b)deeply schizoid without acknowledging the humor of the situation is just a turn-off. There’s got to be something else on TV to watch, and what do you know: the entire oeuvre of drama ever is available to us now.
The pilot does give us one intriguing question — both therapists mention something about the accident that Britten knows wholeheartedly is false. So that makes the ride a little more fun. Depending on how we get through the rest of the TV we’ve got stored up, we might watch the second episode.
But if it doesn’t give us some emotional tone other than “Wow, complete bummer” and it doesn’t deal with (and dismiss) the idea that maybe the solution is simply that Michael’s dead (because your audience is smart, dammit), I’m not coming back.