Spoilers for The Wire, Season 2

Inception, a pretty obscure film by director Christopher Nolan (Insomnia), was a watershed event for science-fiction in film. Suddenly there was, in this new decade, what there was in the nineties — sleek, sexy, thinking man’s sci-fi in cinema. Movies like Source Code, In Time, and The Adjustment Bureau could see the light of day and get the anticipatory respect of major movies in other genres, even if not all of these turned out critically successful. At least people are going for it now. Sure, there continues to be drivel from the drivel store like Resident Evil: Underworld Awakening of the Afterlife and the flashy big budget stuff like John Carter (but I actually want to see that movie), but this new trend of smart, confident sci-fi in Hollywood brings a smile to face like the recent Drive does — all my life I’ve been complaining that we haven’t had these movies, in Drive‘s case a violent, R-rated American action movie, and then… well, shit. We get it. Bitch, and you shall receive. (Not really though, please don’t subscribe to that philosophy).

I like to think that it was this minor renaissance in film that helped NBC’s new drama Awake find its way onto TV screens everywhere, this new attitude that maybe science-fiction isn’t for jerks, and not the recent trinity of serious sci-fi on TV: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes. Those three can be viewed as stepping stones to the genre, because Lord knows that many BSG watchers would be dumbfounded by Stargate Atlantis — these people who are real, not fanboys. While those shows did a lot to popularize the genre and give way to further serious fare like Fringe and Falling Skies, they all fizzled out at the end. Now, I didn’t see any of these save for the first season of Lost and the BSG miniseries, but reports from the field seem to indicate that Heroes went to hell fast, BSG had a WTF ending, and Lost made a lot of missteps through its long stumble to an equally WTF ending.

It’s the medium, it’s television that’s both a blessing and a curse for storytelling. On the positive side, we get something we don’t in movies, not even in a lot of long-running franchises — optimal character development. After roughly 20 hours of watching The Wire, Prez punches Major Valchek and my eyes go wide. This is a character who started out a total asshole — he’s a rookie and goes a little overboard on the streets, roughing somebody up and consequently getting stuck on desk duty. Here, he does a total 180. This guy’s got a real talent for this job, and as we discover, he’s a really good guy. At the start of season two we’re totally on the same page. Towards the end of the season he’s being yelled at by this guy Valchek, who assembled the detail, and is now ending it. Prez doesn’t like this, also doesn’t like being called a shitbird, and punches him.

I was shocked. I was totally invested in this character and couldn’t believe he did something so dangerous to himself. Lieutenant Daniels says, in his always cool but firm manner, “Detective. My office. Now,” and he turns in his gun, walks off screen. It was an amazing moment, and this is the guy who I hated, and enjoyed hating just last season. Of course, that’s twenty hours of content ago. TV is like a book — you can put it down and come back to it later (unless it’s Dexter, in which case that shit gets watched basically all at once), but such is not the case with movies. There are memorable characters in movies, but we don’t get to spend a lot of time with them. Even characters who we do, like James Bond, don’t take out ‘episodes’ to delve into character studies. In TV, we can have these episodes and moment to moment characterizations, so this is the positive aspect.

The negative aspect applies doubly so to science-fiction television: it’s got to last. It’s restrained to so many things, episodic structure, content (for network television), and length. The perfect SF series are those like The X-Files, or Star Trek, where they can open a new case or travel to a new planet every episode, and the self-contained plot works like a short story adapted to the universe. Usually these series aren’t high concept like movies are. Obviously they’re brilliant ideas, and their premises are suited for TV because they allow for many stories in the future.

Awake, on the other hand, is extremely high-concept, and a brilliant idea (which as I realize now, is actually fantasy, but in this context, it’s all the same). Briefly, detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) finds himself in two worlds after a car accident left his wife and son dead. In one world, his wife is alive, and the son is gone. In the other, the son is alive, the wife a memory. He switches between these worlds involuntarily, closing his eyes at night and waking to the other, and of course — nobody believes him. As the two cases he’s investigating begin to bleed over, his two shrinks (B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones) intensify their sessions, which become increasingly distressing. Dr. Lee takes the aggressive route, asserting that he must shake this other reality, while Dr. Evans attempts to solidify their reality as true.

The future of this series is of such concern because the pilot was astonishing. Yes, good for a network TV show, but also effective drama. Jason Isaacs, who’s always awesome but rarely the lead, heads up a cast of talented TV regulars, and the script touches on intriguing areas without delving too deeply into obfuscating philosophical or psychological territory. This is one of the rarest things I’ve ever seen — and network TV’s track record for shows I like or even express interest in (Firefly, Drive, Terminator, anything with Nathan Fillion or Summer Glau, it seems) makes me think that we haven’t got much time.

The main problem is sustainability, and this is something I find myself repeating from the first and only review of the show I read, on IGN.com. Will the continuing adventures of Michael Britten be episodically structured, or is this going to feel like a 350 minute movie? What will future stories look like, how will this premise continue to hold our attention — and with this level of urgency? This is probably why speculative fiction is often rare on television, but since we have it here and now, we’ll wait and see.

350 minutes was a rough estimate for one season of TV, but either way, the show is going to be multiple hours long, and the story will have to conform to that structure. At this moment, the premise and where we are now with the story don’t seem to match up with that idea. This feels like a miniseries, if anything, or the first act in a three act movie. Of course, this is nothing to complain about, only fret. This is the only show I’ve wanted to seek out and keep up with (we don’t get Showtime), so I’m pretty excited, I’ve never had that feeling of “can’t wait for next week.” What’s coming next week will give a better indication to the future of Awake, whether we’ll see something as artistically successful as its opening, or wake up from this beautiful dream, wake to the grey realm of reality TV and sitcoms with laugh tracks and — oh, I turned the TV off.

The next episode of “Awake” premieres March 8, 10pm Eastern.

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

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