“Only the good die young” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL, which we have been sad to see struck down in their prime. A season or two that grabbed us, and…that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion, or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Bryan O’Donnell considers a show with an intriguing premise that cancellation kept from being thoroughly explored: Awake.
Think about a task we do every day: You retire to bed, your head hits the pillow, and you drift off to sleep. But imagine if the typical outcome of this routine changed drastically, and instead of waking up 6-8 hours later, reluctantly ready to face the morning, you found yourself in an alternate reality. And when you fall asleep in this new reality, you switch back to the original—repeating this back-and-forth dance between worlds day after day.
This is the premise of NBC’s surreal cop drama Awake, which aired for 13 episodes back in 2012.
Jason Isaacs plays Los Angeles detective Michael Britten, whose life is splintered after his family experiences a deadly (?) car accident. In one part of his life (known as the “red reality” because he wears a red wristband), Britten’s wife Hannah survived the crash but his son Rex did not. Whenever he goes to sleep, he wakes up in a world in which his son is still alive but his wife perished in the crash (the “green reality” due to his green wristband).
It was a clever concept; one I don’t think was able to live up to its full potential due to the show being cancelled before a second season.
Other than the car accident outcomes, Britten’s mirrored worlds feature minor differences. In the green reality, his detective partner is Isaiah “Bird” Freeman, but in the red reality Bird is reassigned and Britten works cases with the young, inexperienced Efrem Vega. In both worlds, he sees a therapist, but not the same person.
Each episode focuses on both storylines, often with Britten tracking leads on two separate cases. One of my favorite aspects is when a small detail would stand out in one timeline, providing an important clue in the other timeline (e.g., a name on a sign in one reality would end up being the name of an important suspect in the other).
But while Awake is deeply rooted as a police drama, I feel it truly shines in the scenes with Britten’s therapists. Each therapist (Dr. Lee in the red reality, and Dr. Evans in the green) tries to convince Britten that his other life is merely a dream he has created to deal with loss caused by the car accident.
“I can assure you, Detective Britten, this is not a dream,” Dr. Evans says. To which Britten replies, “That’s exactly what the other shrink said.”
I’m always a sucker for TV shows that focus on psychology and therapy (The Sopranos, In Treatment, and Mindhunter all come to mind), and I really enjoy how Awake uses this vehicle. Scenes sometimes bounce back and forth between the two therapists, with both of them insisting the other is a figment of Britten’s imagination.
The scenes always present Britten (and, in turn, the viewer) with the question of which reality is “real.” At times, the red reality seems more likely to be true. (Each episode focuses on a new set of cases, but an overarching storyline does eventually emerge involving a police cover-up conspiracy. A majority of that occurs in the red reality, so I often leaned toward that one being “real.”)
Other times, though, the green reality seems more plausible. For example, in “Say Hello to My Little Friend,” Michael is attending a carnival in the green reality and bumps into a man shortly before he passes out. He wakes in the red reality, unable to escape, and he keeps seeing a ghost version of the man he bumped into at the carnival. No one else can see or hear him. I thought this whole plot line—which helps point Michael toward the answer behind what, and who, caused his car crash—might point toward the green reality being “real.”
Awake is not without its flaws. At times, the police case stories play out like a bad episode of Law & Order.
While rewatching Awake in anticipation of writing this article, I almost wondered if I made a mistake in anointing it as a show that was cancelled to soon. I really could have done without the storyline of Rex getting his high school girlfriend pregnant shortly before the accident, and then in the other reality Britten and his wife wanting to adopt the child. This storyline is thankfully basically abandoned by the end of the series.
Another episode aims to deepen the relationship between Michael and Hannah with some clumsy love cliches, and ultimately falls flat in my opinion. (Also, this episode features Michael jumping off a high dive while a couple of episodes later he reveals he is scared of heights, which inexplicably annoyed me a lot.)
And while overall I enjoyed the idea of Michael’s accident being covered up by some crooked cops, I found it hard to swallow that a group of high-up police officers would be involved in selling heroin out of a warehouse. (However, if it was a dream, was it really too far-fetched?)
Luckily, Awake rights the ship in the final few episodes, and I was relieved that I still felt I would want to see more episodes of this show after finishing my rewatch.
As a show that often pushed the boundaries of reality, Awake definitely kicks it into an even higher gear of weirdness in the final episode.
After discovering the cause of his accident, Michael is framed for murder and thrown in prison. Summoned by a guard to speak with a visitor, Michael finds himself face to face with the green reality version of himself. It’s a shocking moment that brings the first cross-over of the red and green realities, and led me to wonder if either could possibly be real.
Britten is then led through a door and walks into a crime scene from the green reality, with his partner Vega standing next to him in a penguin suit. I’m not really sure what the meaning of the penguin suit is, but I do like it quite a bit. (I can only wonder if this delightful level of absurdity would have continued in future seasons.)
He eventually finds himself talking to his therapist from the green reality, Dr. Evans. And just when we finally have a bit of confidence that the green reality is the real one—after the red reality went off the rails—Dr. Evans makes a comment of the world being “turtles all the way down,” hinting that Britten was perhaps in a dream within a dream.
Then suddenly, Dr. Evans and the world around Britten freeze in place, as yet another door opens. This door leads from the therapist’s office to Britten’s bedroom at home. He walks across the threshold, noticing he is wearing no green or red wristband, and into an empty kitchen. But right before the episode ends, both Hannah and Rex walk in as if nothing happened. Without a second season of Awake, we will never know for sure what the ending meant.
Some people might think everything was a dream (which I think would be a big disappointment) and that both Rex and Hannah were still alive. I don’t believe this is what happened. The final scene with Michael’s family intact did not come after he “woke up.” He walked through a door from the green reality, after time had frozen still.
Perhaps Michael was caught somewhere between life and death? Maybe he was in a coma caused by the car crash? Or perhaps, like Dr. Evans suggested, Michael was in a dream within a dream.
Awake was cancelled a couple of weeks before the finale aired, so the finale was not meant to wrap everything up in a tight bow. It was a show that struggled to bring in ratings, perhaps just missing out on the wave of Peak TV.
I’m not sure that Awake would have been able to continue more than a couple of seasons before the concept lost its luster, but there was definitely still room to grow and continue the mystery. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what really ended up happening to Michael and his family.