Between Two Worlds: NBC’s Awake Was Cancelled Before Its Time

Introducing a new series of essays about science fiction TV series that, while popular with viewers, were cancelled early on by the networks. Some of the programs to be covered include Moonlight (2007-8), Almost Human (2013-4), and the U.S. version of Life on Mars (2008-9). First up, Awake (2012), starring Jason Isaacs.

The 2012 NBC television series Awake had a unique concept that appealed to fans of science fiction, but despite the enthusiasm of its viewers, the series was cancelled after one season, reportedly due to low ratings. Awake posed the question, “Can a person trust his perception of reality after a traumatic experience that bereft him of a loved one?” That question is at the core of Awake. The program was layered with complexity that may need some clarification for those who missed the 2012 run. Let’s take a look at the basic premise…

Michael Britten, played by Jason Isaacs, is an LAPD detective. He’s in a horrific car crash with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and his son Rex (Dylan Minnette). When Britten recovers, he’s facing a world in which Hannah lives but Rex has died in the crash. When he goes to sleep, he’s awake in a reality where Rex is alive and Hannah has died. Britten’s life keeps alternating between the two realities and he needs to find a way to know which reality he’s in whenever he wakes up.

In order to differentiate between these competing worlds, he wears a green rubber band on his wrist in the reality where Rex is alive and a red rubber band in the reality where Hannah is alive. He always wears the rubber band and the appropriately colored band remains in whichever world that he wakes in.

How, exactly, does that happen? That’s a mystery (one of many on the show). It is a device that the creator of the series formulated to help the TV audience, as well as Michael Britten, keep things straight.

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The other people in these two realities, are they all the same?

No. Many characters exist in both realities but there are some that are quite different or only appear in one or the other. At his job with the Los Angeles Police Department, Britten deals with co-workers, witnesses and suspects who can be either quite different or very similar in the two realities. Some might exist in one reality and not the other.

In the Green reality, he works with a seasoned veteran detective named “Bird” Freeman (Steve Harris). In the Red reality, Bird has been transferred to another division and Britten is newly partnered with Detective Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama), who, in the Green reality, is still a uniformed police officer.

Britten’s commanding officer is Captain Tricia Harper (Laura Innes) who exists in both realities. In the wake of the car accident and traumatic loss that Britten suffered, Captain Harper has stipulated that Britten keep regular appointments with a psychiatrist. He speaks to Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones) in the Green reality (where his wife has died) and to Dr. Jonathan Lee (B.D. Wong) in the Red reality (in which his son is dead).

With all these different characters and their changing positions, it seems impossible for a TV audience to keep track of them. So, what’s to prevent a viewer from getting confused and giving up on the series?

That was clearly a major concern, and Awake‘s creator/producer Kyle Killen uses specific visual cues to clarify which reality we’re seeing. In the Green reality, clothes that some characters wear have green coloring (Rex wears a green tee shirt; Dr. Evans has a green scarf) and there’s green in some of the furnishings. Killen also uses lens filters on the camera to create a subtle green tint overall. For the scenes in the Red reality, Hannah is initially shown in a red blouse, flesh tones appear brighter, and the overall cinematography is a splashier, more radiant hue.

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Michael Britten watches his son Rex in one reality and his wife Hannah in the other, struggling with grief when he himself doesn’t feel the same loss that they’re both separately experiencing. He has a sense of helplessness at times as he observes his wife coping with her distress by painting rooms in their home, and his son taking up new interests without being able to fully share his feelings. With each of them, Britten feels like an outsider, unable to empathize completely with them because he still has both Rex and Hannah in his life, albeit in different realities.

Although the show is primarily a police procedural, the glue that ties the two realities together for us are the psychiatrist sessions. Both Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans urge Britten to accept that the other reality is simply a dream. These sessions are often shown back-to-back, so the TV viewer sees how the doctors differ in their opinions on the same event. Britten tells them everything about the other reality, so Lee and Evans act like a Greek chorus, and the viewer gets a rundown of plot elements through their exposition.

So, how can we tell if the world in which his son lives is less real than the one where his wife lives? Or vice versa. Does the show give us any clues about which place is more real?

Producer Killen doesn’t seem to want to say that either one of these realities is a dream. He’s leaving the question open…but he does want the viewer to wonder about it. The two psychiatrists continue to try persuading Britten that theirs is the true reality. Their certainty makes that fundamental question at the heart of the show all the more intriguing.

For instance, in the pilot episode, Dr. Evans poses a situation for Detective Britten that, she believes, proves that her world–the world where Rex is alive–is the true one.

She prints out a few pages from the U.S. Constitution and asks Britten to read aloud any passage at random. He does, then stops, asking “What’s the point?”

Dr. Evans tells him: “If this is a dream and your son has really died instead of your wife, and you’re just making all of this up, explain to me how you can turn to a random page and start quoting it word-for-word.”

How does Dr. Lee counter that? He doesn’t. Not directly. Britten doesn’t suggest making the same test during their session, but Dr. Lee does present his own argument—his position is that Britten is avoiding the pain of his own grief by creating a second reality in a dream. “This fantasy is far from benign,” he asserts. “While your brain should be resting and recharging, your subconscious is using it to hold up a detailed and complicated alternative reality. If we don’t deal with that, this situation will eventually become unsustainable.”

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Britten’s response to Lee’s concern is at the heart of the protagonist’s attitude and, I suspect, expresses the central theme of the show. Britten tells Lee: “The thing is, Doctor, yes, I still see my wife and my son, and I’ve also watched both of them lowered into the ground. And when you see a loved one buried, you have one thought over and over and over again, and that is that you will do anything – anything – to get them back. So, if you’re telling me that the price of seeing them, feeling them, of having them in my life is my sanity, it’s a price I will happily pay.”

The passion that Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten brings to a scene like this gives the show its humanity. The viewer sees in the lines of his face and calm professional demeanor a cynical man who would ordinarily find it unbelievable that someone might live in two alternate realities. He’d be the first to say “I don’t believe any of this.” Except that he is experiencing it first-hand and he knows it to be real. The tough, hard-edged exterior that actor Isaacs puts into the role makes Britten a fascinating character to watch: the skeptical detective who is living in an impossible set of circumstances.

It’s obvious that what matters most in Awake is Britten’s sensitivity to his predicament. These two psychiatrists are there to help him work on his belief system and improve his respective relationships to his son/wife. But, in that case, why make the show a police procedural? How does that aspect of the show fit in with Britten’s central plight?

Britten’s investigations are integrated into his story. They help him piece together what happened to him or illuminate something about his connection to Hannah or Rex. In the episode entitled “Kate Is Enough,” Britten and his partner investigate murders that are completely different in the two realities. They involve different victims, different methods of murder, different locales, and different sets of suspects. Interestingly, the same character appears in both worlds, a person that Britten once knew—her name is Kate Porter (played by Briana Brown) and she had been Rex’s babysitter when he was an infant.

In the Red reality, Britten and Detective Vega are called to a luxury yacht where a young Asian woman named Annie Yang has fallen overboard and drowned. In the Green reality, Britten and Bird are sent to a hotel room where the victim, Charlie Simmons, has been tied to a chair and shot in the head. Among the witnesses on the yacht in the Red reality is Kate Porter, who recognizes Britten. She has become a successful investment banker visiting Los Angeles from New York. In the Green reality, in which Rex is alive, Kate is a drug addict who had been the victim’s girlfriend. Kate has gone down two different paths; part of what Britten needs to figure out is what caused that divergence in Kate’s life.

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Britten’s investigation into Annie Yang’s death indicates that she had been drugged, and had fallen from the yacht as a consequence. He finds that the two young male entrepreneurs who own the yacht had motive; Miss Yang wanted to stop them from marketing a defective product. The successful Kate of this reality is instrumental in solving the case: one of the perpetrators had spilled wine on her dress, and lab analysis shows that the wine stains had traces of the same drug given to Miss Wang.

In the Green reality, Britten interrogates the drug addicted version of Kate when evidence points to her automobile being at Simmon’s hotel at the time of death. Kate confesses that she and her drug dealer plotted to “scare” Simmons into giving them the combination to his safe so they could take his money. Instead, Kate’s dealer killed Simmons. Britten places Kate under arrest.

So, why is Kate there in both criminal cases? What is her presence in both realities adding to the central narrative of Britten’s split realities?

Her presence relates directly to Rex. In the opening scene of this episode, Rex fights with his best friend Cole at school. When Britten arrives, Rex tells him that Cole had taken his tennis racquet without permission and had accidentally broken the strings while in a match. Rex refuses to explain why he is so angry even though Cole offers to have the racquet repaired. In his session with Dr. Evans, Britten talks about how helpless he feels in trying to understand his son.

In both the Red and Green realities, Britten attempts to pinpoint the turning point in Kate Porter’s life, the point where her paths diverged. In a scene that cuts back and forth between one reality to another, Britten sits across from the two versions of Kate as each tells her story. She had urged her sister to go surfing with her in rough waters; when her sister drowned, it left her feeling guilty and hurting. Kate’s mother in both realities attempted to get her to move on with her life instead of wallowing in her pain. In the Green reality, with Kate’s insistence that she “didn’t want to feel better,” her mother “let her be.” That led to her self-medicating to numb the pain and she became a drug addict. In the Red reality, her mother continued to work on her, even though the mother was suffering the same pain and loss. She refused to let Kate be, and that made all the difference.

Kate’s two pathways inspire Britten to pursue Rex and learn the real cause of his son’s anger. Through Britten’s urging, Rex explains that the racquet had been Hannah’s; he had been keeping it with him but not using it in tennis matches at school. It symbolized his personal connection to his mother, so Cole’s offer to repair it meant nothing to Rex. Following Rex’s admission, Britten and his son form a closer bond than they ever had previously.

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Not only does the “cop show” part of the series’ premise helps Britten work out something in his personal life, but the dual crimes often reflect and relate to one another, allowing Det. Britten to use facts in one reality to reach solutions in the other. In the episode “Guilty,” an escaped convict named John Cooper kidnaps Rex and hides him on a secluded farm. Cooper arranges to meet with Britten, claims he is innocent of murder, and asks for his help to find the guilty party who framed him. Before Britten can obtain a vital clue to where his son is hidden, a SWAT team storms in and kills Cooper. All is lost, except…Britten wakes up in the Red reality where Cooper is alive and serving his prison term. Interviewing Cooper in prison, Britten promises to find the real killer and convinces him to give him the locations of hideouts where he had stayed. Using this information, he finds his chained son in the Green Reality and discovers who the true murderer is.

If you’ve never watched Awake, you may be wondering how the crime/detective story elements of the show balance out with its science fiction elements. Are we watching science fiction or just another “crime of the week” kind of series?

I believe that much of science fiction involves mystery. It’s the search and discovery that the main character goes through in SF that is paramount. The first sentence in Franz Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis” begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke from a fitful sleep, he found that he had become a giant cockroach.” That’s the starting point and what happens to Samsa is the unfolding of things unknown in which the reader shares in the protagonist’s experience. What’s a guy turning into a big bug got to do with Awake?

Much like Samsa, Michael Britten undergoes a vital transformation because of the unique situation he finds himself in. He is forced into making discoveries about himself by the very fact that he has no control over his situation. Both science fiction and police procedurals share a common story line in that a protagonist confronts an enigma by asking questions, making discoveries that shed light on the problem; and then forming conclusions that enable him or her to reach a resolution.

And there’s much more to Awake then just the story of a guy learning things about himself while he chases down suspects and solves crimes every week. Most obviously there is the predominant question of whether Britten is dreaming up one or both of these realities. What is the true nature of reality and dreaming for Britten? If he is dreaming up either one or both of these realities, what is Britten’s actual physical condition? Which events in his life, including the car accident, actually took place?

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Furthermore, Britten himself is driven by the search for the truth about what caused the auto accident. During the course of the 13-episode run of the series, he learns that it wasn’t an accident. He had been deliberately targeted. That discovery and his search for answers is the major story arc of the first (and, as it turned out, the only) season.

We can trace the beginning of the arc to the second episode of the series, “The Little Guy.” In both realities, Britten takes the case of a murder victim named MacKenzie. The victim is a respected doctor/fertility specialist in the Green reality and a homeless man in the Red reality. Britten successfully finds and arrests the killer of Doctor MacKenzie, but he reaches a dead end in tracking the murderer of his homeless counterpart. In that investigation, Britten is forced to rely on a single witness, another homeless man who is delusional. That man insists that he saw “an angry little guy” shoot MacKenzie. In spite of Britten’s obsession over finding the little guy in question, nothing comes of it and the case is unresolved.

And yet, producer Killen, who also wrote “The Little Guy,” wants the TV viewer to remember that particular phrase. In that same episode, Killen writes a key scene revealing the secret behind the car accident. Britten’s captain, Tricia Harper meets with another police captain, Carl Kessel (played by Mark Harelik) on a park bench. They discuss a conspiracy to kill Britten in order to prevent him from learning about some dirty deal they are both involved in. Harper asks if Kessel had used “a little guy” to cause the auto accident, and Kessel confirms it.

“The little guy,” then, is far from a dead end for us viewers. We get to see him eventually, but not before the Killen and the writers complicate Britten’s circumstances even further. In the sixth episode, “That’s Not My Penguin,” Britten is injected with a drug to make him hallucinate. The episode takes place largely in the Red reality where a highly delusional patient of Dr. Lee’s, Gabriel Wyeth (played by Billy Lush), breaks out and takes hostages in the hospital where he is being held. Somehow, Wyeth has put together an explosive device and holds a “dead man’s switch” in his hand that will detonate if something happens to him. Detective Britten gets permission to go in and talk to him, but Wyeth becomes irrational when a tactical team tries to shoot him. He knocks Britten out and then injects him with a large dose of Ketamine. When Britten recovers, he finds Dr. Lee nursing him while they are still being held by Wyeth. From that point on, Britten sees a live penguin everywhere he goes.

In spite of his hallucination, Britten is able to calm Wyeth so that he’s willing to surrender to the police. When Britten is finally freed, he discovers that Lee hadn’t been with him inside the hospital—Lee’s presence inside had also been a hallucination. Although Britten figures out that the illusion of a penguin was inspired by a children’s book he and Hannah had read to Rex as an infant, this episode establishes that Britten will experience other delusions and hallucinations further along.

AWAKE -- "Say Hello To My Little Friend" Episode 110 -- Pictured: Mark Harelik as Carl -- Photo by: Jordin Althaus/NBC

His hallucinations eventually takes on the form of a very clear and distinctive “little guy” in episode eleven, “Say Hello to My Little Friend.” The series was cancelled by NBC after this episode aired, but the network ran the remaining two episodes after the cancellation had been announced. Happily, the eleventh episode actually provides some key answers, finally revealing who had caused the car accident that was intended to kill Britten. Who was it? The little guy, of course.

Let me explain: the little guy, played by Kevin Weisman, was a quirky imaginary man that followed Britten around wherever he went. He couldn’t provide Britten with any answers because, he said, he was part of Britten. Later in the episode, Britten sees his old partner Bird, who’s been transferred to a different division. Bird introduces Britten to his new partner: the little guy himself, Detective Ed Hawkins. By the end of “Say Hello to My Little Friend,” Britten regains his memory of the moments before the crash and recognizes Hawkins as the man who’d forced his car off the road. Hawkins was the killer of his family. With that discovery, one of the series’ major mysteries is resolved.

The story is far from over, though: in the two final episodes there is a jumble of twists and reversals that move the action quickly in the wake of this critical revelation. In one reality, Britten kills Hawkins and must prove that Hawkins was a dirty cop before anyone finds his body. In the other reality, Hawkins kills Bird and frames Britten for the murder, turning Britten into a fugitive. In the meantime, Captain Harper feels the net tightening around her as the truth threatens to come to light.

Ultimately, the last scene of the final episode opens up a whole new possibility—one that will never be explained now, due to the series’ cancellation. I won’t spoil it here, but for those of you out there who know what I’m talking about, what do you think it means?

Looking back on Awake as a whole, I think it’s important to go back to that key scene with Captains Harper and Kessel in the second episode, “The Little Guy.” The scene takes place in daylight, outdoors in a park. The setting consists of bright colors, shades of skin tones, and the vivid greens of grass. We know that Captain Harper exists in both realities. So, is it possible that this scene is also occurring in both realities? And since Britten is NOT privy to this, would that mean that both of these worlds are real? In the same episode, both Hannah and Rex go off on their own to pursue interests, which Britten also doesn’t know about. Doesn’t that lend credence to the possibility that both worlds truly exist?

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We may never know how the show would have resolved these conundrums, but I’d like to know what viewers and fans of Awake think about these questions, and about the show itself. Leave your comments below and let’s continue our dialogue…

Ted Krulik was born at the beginning of the television age. As a child, he watched first-run episodes of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, starring Richard Crane, and the 1950s Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland. A new and exciting series of the late 1960s, a little known TV show named Star Trek, filled Krulik with dreams of a someday world of aliens and remarkable technical devices. In the 1970s, Krulik attended the earliest Star Trek conventions in Manhattan. At one of these, he met George Takei, Ensign Sulu himself, who told him that Star Trek was never coming back to television except, maybe, as a new animated series. “You see,” Takei said, “all the sets have been struck; all the uniforms are gone. There’s nothing left to go back to.” Famous last words.

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