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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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Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is a wonderful analogy to the state of the Hollywood picture. It’s the name that sells, same as always, but sometimes it seems that these guys aren’t aware of what they’re doing. They’re stabbing in the dark — Journey to the Center of the Earth has the same marquee value as The Mysterious Island (although who knows, with potential success of John Carter perhaps we’ll see a remake of At the Earth’s Core, and then interest in subterranean movies will be 2013), but because of the Journey 3D movie from a few years ago, that’s ‘renewed interest.’ it’s like a bizarre implicit (to the audiences) system of powering brands, so that in 2012 — the future — a movie called Journey 2: The Mysterious Island has marquee value. Maybe in time we’ll get an Unforgiven II: A Fistful of Dollars, when the western returns into this new Hollywood realm. Metallica can do the music.

Titles to me are an interesting thing, and in this day, the age of the franchise, they’re everything in movies. They’re the face of Hollywood trending, which to the consumer, really takes the ‘art’ out of the ‘art/business’ cocktail that is the film industry — the veil is lifted, we understand that big companies control movies, and right now, they’re taking notes from each other. You can’t call the third Twilight movie Eclipse. It has to be Twilight Saga: Eclipse, because the potential is there for $2 million worth of Twilight fans out there who don’t know the names of the books, and don’t watch trailers. God forbid it’s called Twilight 3.

Bad example; Twilight 3 is an adaptation of a book called Eclipse, so you’d just use that title (or, attempt to). But I think the numbering system, which in this day is underused, has significance. Now, this next segment is going to be really …wtf, in the sense that nerds go on about useless things but this is like that but to the max — bear with me.

Sequel titles are never decided by their artistic value. Were that the case, Rambo III would be called Rambo: First Blood Part III and Rambo Rambo First Blood Part IV, or Rambo IV. There’s no artistic value in the titles of Rambo movies, but this series in particular offers a good analogy; the marketing team or studio or whomever is willing to compromise the logical integrity of a string of sequel titles because they discover that Rambo’s the piece that has financial potential, not First Blood, the title of the original book and movie. To the lay, Rambo III has nothing to do with First Blood, and is is a sequel to Rambo, which came out exactly twenty years later? When you change the title like that, it gets pretty messy. There’s exactly one reason why they do it, and that’s kind of a bummer.

Something that’s re-become interesting to me is Bioshock Infinite, and looking at interviews online of Ken Levine. One of the things often brought up is something I believe I talked about many suns ago on this very website… the idea that Bioshock Infinite is called Bioshock Infinite, seemingly sharing in space occupied by a franchise going in an entirely different direction. There’s an issue here, and the issue is exacerbated by an initial sequel, Bioshock 2, which wasn’t done by Levine’s team, Irrational Games. Had Bioshock 2 been called Bioshock: Sea of Dreams or something, I don’t know I’m just spitballing, perhaps the problem would be less, but as it stands, the fans expect Infinite to take place in a ‘Bioshock universe’ if it’s going to take the name.

Levine’s philosophy here is that of the artist, not the businessman, as we might think. In his fledgling industry, which strives for establishment in popular entertainment each and every day, he’s all about pushing creative boundaries to ‘legitimize’ the medium; he’s right up there with Team Ico and the guys who do Heavy Rain, I suppose. This time around he wants to see what a sequel can do, because when we think of sequel, particularly with video-games, we get five new guns and a new creature or pallette swap. Same old stuff though, for the most part.

Why is it that a video-game sequel cannot be spiritually linked, as it often can be in movies or literature? It’s tricky, because the connection between Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock is closer than that of System Shock 2 and Bioshock, but not quite as with Bioshock 2 and Bioshock. The last example has both games taking place in the underwater city Rapture, and Infinite takes place in the city in the sky Columbia. System Shock 2 is in space, and is different, but similar. (I realize how ridiculous all of this is). The obvious point to bring up here is that they’re just trading on the Bioshock name, because that sells. Well, sure, but what was Irrational trading on the first time around? Don’t say ‘shock.’

I’m pretty sure there was an article on IGN talking about how inappropriate a title Bioshock was, and how a better title was Rapture. No hate toward IGN, but this mentality is definitely what Levine and co. are attempting to challenge. Referring to your game by an in-world element is incredibly limiting — on the flip, a thematic title can carry though. Also, it’s a dangerous practice on principle anyhow, because I’m pretty sure all the Halos are gone by Halo 4, and I don’t believe there were any Metroids in Metroid Prime 2: Echos. That’s the only one I didn’t [start to] play [and never finish because fuck puzzles, even easy ones].

When we think of Bioshock, we should think of a world effected by ideology — interactive impressionistic environments laden with satire. We should think superpowers, studies of civilizations and politics. It’ll be shocking to your system, cerebrally, and visually. The interactive element is dynamic because you’re shooting, using super laser powers (and in Infinite, swing around on rails), and the story/character bits may raise questions. Instead, fans only want to think of Rapture. Stop scamming us, Ken Levine. We’re on to you.

So this was… ostensibly about one topic. Titles… or Bioshock Infinite. It’s been a slow few weeks, which is why there haven’t been any posts. I know you’re all clammering.

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