I've been spending a lot of time this week watching pilots for broadcast network shows that will air next season.
They're a varied bunch, but they've done two things particularly well: Firstly, the pilots have made me appreciate even more what what the weird, evocative "Awake" accomplished in its first and only season. And secondly, they've made me wonder if any of the new shows will achieve the kind of visual and emotional poetry that "Awake" did. I'm not completely finished watching the pilots the networks sent (and they didn't send all of them), but I'm sadly of the belief that that'll be a bar that the frequently pallid new offerings won't be able to clear.
I suppose it's understandable that the broadcast networks have (not for the first time) retreated into competent, unexceptional and inoffensive formulas, caught as they are between a rock and a hard place. As Nielsen-measured audiences dwindle (and they dwindled significantly this past season) and as ambitious fare like "Terra Nova" and "Smash" ran aground, the big networks have fewer and fewer options: They can continue to cater to the audiences of a bunch of cult-y shows with passionate viewerships, or they can keep on bland-ifying or lamely tarting up their offerings, in desperate bids to get everyone -- anyone? -- to keep coming around.
Talk about a no-win situation. But all the hedging, de-weirding and focus-grouping ultimately means that the viewers lose the most. (Check out the HuffPost TV staff's thoughts on NBC's pilots and Fox's pilots for proof; more quick reactions to other network pilots -- a few of which may have some potential -- are coming next week.)
This crop of pilots reflects the dilemma of networks who've been burned in attempts to engineer big-tent hits in a media landscape that is more friendly to tiny, small and medium-sized tents on a growing array of platforms. With these new shows, it looks as if the whole goal is not to draw people in with something distinctive, but to refrain from offending people with ideas or formats that might be unfamiliar to them. But does anyone really think the future lies in lowest-common-denominator, purposefully non-distinctive fare?
I don't think all network executives truly think that. To paraphrase something Agent Coulson said in "The Avengers," the networks lack conviction. I don't sense that their hearts are in many of these shows (aside from the excellent new ABC drama "Last Resort," and I think creators Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek are responsible for the conspicuous sense of momentum that show has). Still, whatever the cause, the majority of new shows aren't even memorably awful or weird. They're just there.
You can't say that about "Awake." Sure, it was yet another variation on a cop procedural, but "Awake" did not lack conviction; if it had one flaw, it's that it had too many convictions bursting out of its procedural shell (so many that it gladly dropped the case of the week by the end). The NBC show, which starred Jason Isaacs as a cop who spent time in two different realities, wanted to provide viewers with a relatively interesting case of the week -- if not two -- but it also worked really hard to function as a meditation on how memory works and why its demands can be both a burden and a blessing.
The manipulation of time and memory has been a fruitful source of storytelling for an array of ambitious storytellers: "Inception" is the big kahuna of the genre in the film world, but "Lost," "Fringe," "Dollhouse" and "Doctor Who" have told incredibly poignant ongoing stories in this realm. In an era in which identities are constantly shaped, pruned and massaged, the idea of having our minds and souls examined and edited by anyone (even ourselves) is both addictive and terrifying.
"Awake" creator Kyle Killen was clearly fascinated by the question of how we mold our identities by sifting through our recollections and pursuing certain emotional bonds, sometimes past the point of reason. And if there's one thing I absolutely loved about "Awake," it's that it went batshit insane toward the end, as cop Michael Britten's two worlds began to melt and collide. Things got gloriously, ambiguously, emotionally weird, and that's a term I don't think I'll get to use often when it comes to next year's new dramas.
I'll give my specific thoughts on the final episodes past a spoiler warning below, because I really want people to go back and watch "Awake," if they haven't already. From about "Ricky's Taco's" onward, "Awake" had a much better sense of the array of things it was trying to do. It set up mysteries, but, for example, in the very strong episode "Nightswimming," the question was about whether an informant's wife was a greedy woman or merely someone whose memories of a simpler life were tearing her apart. The show wasn't about the nitty-gritty of police work, though the investigations clicked along nicely; the drama was more of a rumination on the nature of obsession and how we try (and sometimes fail) to keep connections alive.
The best episodes didn't focus on bad guys per se, and that's why "Awake" was never going to be a good fit for network television. The show managed a bigger challenge better: It derived a great deal of dramatic and emotional tension from the question of whether you can and should trust your own mind and impressions. Isaacs' hangdog, wounded quality --and the character's relentless perseverance in the face his bizarre double life -- was a perfect fit for this show: Even in scenes without dialogue, you knew this guy would never give up or lose track of what he was trying to hold on to, even if facts and memories started to collide in bizarre and unsettling ways.
For all its obsessional tendencies, thanks to its subtle but impressive visual style, "Awake" retained a lyrical sense of atmosphere, and that dreamy quality, which it had from the start, was another of its finest accomplishments. Though I think it got a little over-enamored of its timey-wimey ambitions right at the end, you never really forgot that Britten's quest wasn't about "closure," but about raging against death, about keeping his memories and experiences of his son and wife alive as long as possible, even at the cost of his career and almost everything else in his life.
Not surprisingly, the cop's dual therapists were often the weakest parts of the show; they were sidelined more and more because they were just there to rain on Britten's metaphysical parade, and who needed that when there were tension-filled ambiguities to be explored? If anything, the season functioned as something of a repudiation of certain allegedly therapeutic ideas about "closure": Is there anything more condescending than a therapist saying the words, "I think what's happening is real to you." Those last two words are really just twists of the knife, designed to reinforce the speakers superior knowledge of what's real, but Britten clung to the idea that nobody was allowed to pass judgment on his experiences. Besides, haven't there been, in history, some paranoid people whose ramblings turned out to be absolutely right? Britten's tragic fate is that he was just one of those guys. It was all real to him, and who are we to tell him otherwise?
I highly recommend that you watch the episodes that are up on Hulu and NBC.com (and if you have Hulu Plus and can watch from "Nightswimming" onward, all the better), but I'm not necessarily lamenting that "Awake" is over. I honestly don't know what the second season of this show would have been, or if it could have built fruitfully on what the first season eventually became. There's only so many times you can flip reality on its head and rewire characters' connections, as "Fringe" found in its less gripping fourth season.
"Awake" is what it is, and, as Emily Nussbaum once said on Twitter, it was a turducken, a glorious turducken, bound for extinction, but what a ride: It started out strange and got stranger, but in a good way.
So what if it often overstretched and tried to do too much, especially in the patchy early-to-middle section of the season, when it couldn't quite cover all its bases? So what if I agree with basically everyone who thinks Kyle Killen should migrate to cable, where one of his next shows will undoubtedly be a much-loved cult gem that succeeds over multiple seasons? "Awake" gave me hope that wonderfully weird hybrids get to occasionally exist on the big networks, which, I want to state clearly, I want to survive. Sure, of course, let them have those big-tent hits (if that's even possible), but the true glory of this declining era is the fact when networks relax, relent and let the weird kids have a turn and keep the odd ducks around, they sometimes become not-so-out-there institutions.
I just hope the broadcast networks realize that small ball is, over the long term, a loser's game. The more entertainment devices people have, the more nervous the networks become about their role in the world, and the safer their choices. But why not swing for the fences? Sure, hedge your bets with sexy doctors and grim D.A.s, but why not get a little weird too? If now's not the time to embrace subversiveness, boldness and distinctive visions, when exactly do the networks think that moment will arrive?
As Britten might have told them, they should make the most of the time they have left.
Specific thoughts on the "Awake" finale are below. Read on if you've seen the final episodes of the first and final season.
If you saw me clutching my head and rocking in the fetal position during Season 5 of "Lost," you know I'm not always a fan of the M.C. Escher school of time-and-memory shenanigans. Still, I absolutely loved the moment in the "Awake" finale when Britten was talking to Wilder Valderrama in a penguin suit (that gets my vote for the strangest thing to happen on NBC this year, aside from the "Smash" musical number about method acting). From that moment on, I was very much on board with the loopy but rigorous finale. And overall, I was glad that the show had the courage of its convictions and showed incredibly divergent outcomes for the detective in the two different realms: betrayed and jailed in one world, relatively able to wrap up loose ends in the other (at first, anyway). Remembering isn't always a panacea, as Britten found.
Prior to that, the Kevin Weisman/Det. Ed Hawkins story and the way the show's overall mythology took over worked very well toward the end of the season; there was so much good, old-fashioned tension and mystery about seeing where the things would go and I love a good, well-structured mythology that starts to eat everything in its path. In the final hours of "Awake's" season, however, I occasionally got the sense that the machinery was taking over and the ride became somewhat less emotionally engaging here and there, though Isaacs played the hell out of everything he was given, especially Britten's rage at being locked up and betrayed.
I know from this interview with Alan Sepinwall what Killen meant by the finale scene, in which Britten saw both his wife and son still alive; sadly, I'm one of the probably few audience members who didn't quite get what was going on when that actually happened. I wanted it to land for me; it just didn't because I was too confused. The previous scene with Cherry Jones' shrink started to stray into dangerous territory (it wasn't as bad as the Architect scene in "The Matrix Reloaded," but it gave me similar heebie-jeebies). Once Britten was with his family again, I thought that moment negated everything I'd seen before and that the accident had never happened. So my response to that last image was, "Hunh"?
Now I understand that Michael had constructed a third reality in his mind, but I was a little sad that it took a post-finale interview for me to get that. Still, that relatively small disappointment doesn't take away from the fact that "Awake" was a wonderfully intelligent attempt to infuse a genre stalwart -- the cop show -- with ambitious ideas and credible emotional payoffs. Overall, I enjoyed the second half of the season quite a bit, and did I mention that Wilmer Vaderrama wore a penguin suit? And that both actors played that moment sensationally straight? I could hug "Awake" for that, and for having a vision at all, instead of having a formula and sticking to it.
All that being said, I'm not so much mourning the loss of this show (well, maybe a little) as I'm looking forward to Killen's next endeavor. See you on the other side, Britten fans.