Recently, I’ve been mourning the loss of a TV show. This may seem premature, as it has not officially been cancelled, but the writing seems to be on the wall. While the ratings for “Awake” started well, people have stopped tuning in as the show has continued. Likewise, the journalists who raved over the series’ promise now criticize it. When passengers and crew push and shove each other to secure a berth on a lifeboat, one wonders what is wrong with the ship. What has caused people to abandon the show they once found so promising?
The show mixes two popular genres: science fiction and police procedural. Added to this is the drama concerning the Brittens’ struggle to overcome a family member’s death. With sci-fi, usually the concern is cost, but as the dual realities are set on present day Earth, there are no special effects to worry the accountants. Instead of one crime, each episode usually offers two crimes to be solved, giving the viewer twice as many clues to ponder. Critics and viewers are always interested in the forces that threaten to tear a family apart. Well, thanks to his two realities, Michael Britten now has two families to hold together.
Last week’s episode, “Game Day,” offered up a familiar science fiction argument concerning the multiverse: that for each dilemma or event, a new universe is created in which each potential choice or action is played out. The intense rivalry between two football teams (and their fans) comes down to the last, crucial field goal. In one reality, the green team wins; in the other, the red team wins. (This ties in nicely with the green and red rubber band notion). In one reality, a shopkeeper loses a significant bet. In the other, a rabble-rousing fan is murdered. In one reality, Michael Britten’s son is mourning the breakup of his relationship with his girlfriend. In the other, his wife has finally talked Michael into moving to Oregon to start anew. The detectives investigate the shopkeeper’s establishment after a fire: they determine it was caused by arson, yet it has also become a murder, as an employee slept on the premises. The detectives catch a man who was seen to brawl with the rabble-rouser at the game, yet he doesn’t remember his actions: he had too much to drink. At best, the above summary is incomplete. Yet it establishes one inarguable fact: there’s a lot going on in any episode of “Awake.”
Any storyteller will admit that a chief concern is getting the mix right. Once a filmmaker has wrapped up production and begun assembling his movie, he starts deleting scenes that he feels will dilute the viewer’s focus from the primary storyline. Likewise, after his first draft, a writer sometimes combines two characters who performed similar roles, or whose individual tasks weren’t significant enough to warrant the reader’s attention. A certain amount of complexity is essential to good storytelling, but, as everyone knows, sometimes it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of “Awake:” there’s simply too much going on in any one episode. When it comes to mysteries, people love red herrings and lots of suspects: they love following the detective’s search to discover the person who actually committed the crime. Yet two crimes per episode prevents the detectives from questioning and investigating a long list of suspects for either one. Then throw all the other various dramatic issues concerning the Brittens into the mix. The last episode offered the two psychiatrists little more than token appearances. Then there’s the essential question lurking behind the series: how is it that Michael Britten can perceive these two realities? Why is his captain in one reality seemingly aware of Michael Britten’s ability to navigate between the two? And who is the man she’s in touch with, who has promised her he will kill Michael Britten unless he moves to Oregon?
“Game Day” overflowed with tragedies to wrench the heart, excite the mind, provoke interest in what will happen next, while promising to endanger Michael Britten in at least one reality. Yet given the series’ ratings, I fear I’ll never learn how these two universes split apart (if they have), or watch Michael Britten navigate between them while holding his two families together in the years to come. For me, that’s the ultimate tragedy of "Awake."
Related Dragon Cache entries
Follow the green and red rubber bands at Wikipedia
Watch last week’s episode at the NBC website