The NBC dual-reality series Awake was always in a special category. Everyone can deal with the classic setup of a dream within a dream -- even if you're talking about a storyline as convoluted as Inception, you're only dealing with one level of immersion at a time.
But two dreams in parallel, with interplay between, and subtle differences between them? It takes some getting used to. The alternate realities in Fringe come closest, but in Awake there are fewer one-to-one correlations between people and enterprises to help you bridge the two worlds. Bizarro world always has a Bizarro Lois and a Bizarro Jimmy; but Awake is more ambitious, and trusts you enough not to hold your hand at every turn.
An Unconventional Setup
Its premise is complex: The lead character, detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), wakes up into alternating realities, each of which seems real to him; in one his wife died in a recent car crash, in the other it was his son who died; in each he has different partners and different therapists; and, for reasons he can't understand, clues to what's going on in one reality help him to understand problems he has in the other; unknown to him, conspiracies watch him anxiously, fearing he'll stumble across whatever it was that the car accident was engineered to stop him uncovering.
As an avid watcher of Awake I know its set-up is workable, as long as you take it on faith that the peculiar inter-reality clues (to give an offhand example, the name on a warehouse in one reality might be the name of a moving company in another, prompting him to investigate locale or idea he would not otherwise have noticed) aren't plot contrivances but signifiers that Britten is immersed in a larger, deeper story.
The cast is splendid, and have room to grow -- especially Wilmer Valderrama, who's been stealing scenes as Det. Efrem Vega and has immense potential for development over future stories. Playing the surly, uncommunicative teenager is often a thankless task, but Dylan Minnette, as Rex, has a savvy command of his character's emotions, carefully using his expressive face and body language to underplay Rex's moods.
The two therapists, both deftly handled by old pros at least as famous for their theatrical performances as their screen work, also play with their apparent function as instigators of plot-developing dialog. As performed by Cherry Jones as the bright-eyed Dr. Evans in the blue reality and B.D. Wong as the stern, challenging Dr. Lee in the red reality, they function as a kind of Greek chorus, not only commenting on but also spinning and twisting Britten's strange experiences; and Wong's character has already shown he can be a more active agent in the story.
Consequences of Complexity
Awake was always going to take longer to build its audience than more straightforward procedurals. But now, only ten episodes in, TV writers are starting to pencil Awake onto their lists of shows looming under the threat of cancellation. TV.com's big list of what's dead, alive, or in between slaps Awake with a "likely cancellation" sticker, explaining that the show "only stands a chance if NBC wants to fish for award, because the ratings just aren't where they need to be."
As far back as a month ago, the ratings-crunching site TV By the Numbers consigned Awake to the "certain to be canceled" slag heap where CBS's A Gifted Man has been lingering all spring. Among network genre shows, they have The Secret Circle "on the bubble," but only A Gifted Man and Awake are, according to TVBN, already in their coffins and just waiting for the nails -- though Awake's "renew/cancel index," 0.79, is at least considerably higher than A Gifted Man's 0.45.
The culprit is ratings -- not just bad ratings, bus disastrous ratings. For its last outing, on Apr. 26, Awake garnered a 0.8 rating among adults 18 -- 49, and 2.2 million live plus same-day viewers -- a very small number for a prime-time, broadcast network drama, and a distant third behind The Mentalist and Scandal, and dropping a third of its lead-in audience from Parks and Rec.
Even more ominously, NBC may have started pulling the levers that signify declining faith in a struggling series. In this case it's a small move: Community's finale night, May 17, has been expanded, at the expense of Awake, the finale for which has now been pushed back a week to May 24 -- and out, coincidentally or not, of the May sweeps period. Most of the time TV pundits interpret a show's being removed from sweeps, so as to minimize the damage to the network from its poor performance, as a bad omen for the future of the show in question.
NBC's history with Awake allows for some confidence. It seems clear that network executives have been ready to accommodate the ramifications of Awake's complexity, supporting a "pause" in November in which production was suspended so that creator Kyle Killen and his team could map out the way ahead more carefully.
The Need for Involving Shows
It's a tragedy each and every time a series that hasn't fulfilled its potential is crumpled up and thrown out by the network bean-counters. And the tragedy is amplified in sci-fi/fantasy, because so often it takes tremendous vision to launch speculative fiction against all odds on mainstream TV, which is otherwise saturated with the formulaic and the banal.
For NBC to cancel Awake, which is so clearly a fertile environment for the kinds of challenging storylines that repay close attention and encourage rewatching, would be the saddest story yet of the 2011-2012 season.
The prescription for television should be: less reality, more dreams. TV's hours are being flooded with empty-headed, bronzed narcissists and shows languishing in iterations of the same plot retold over and over, when what we hunger for is flights of the imagination.