Television gets a bad rap as an “escapist” medium. Especially on network television, the people are prettier than we are, the stories are easily wrapped up after 44 minutes, there’s a kind of moral clarity (usually conservative) that’s missing from the real world. One reason to watch Law & Order or CSI, for instance, is for the opportunity to visit a world where the line between good and bad guys can be clearly drawn and the good guys almost always win. As a result, TV (especially genre TV) is often criticized as formulaic, uncomplicated, “easy.”
And maybe so, but I don’t think that’s a reason to dismiss these shows. One of my favorite explanations for how we experience stories is the idea of a “narrative world” into which we are transported. Every time we read a story or see a film or a play, we take a trip into this imagined space. The “escapism” of television isn’t then something we need to be ashamed of—it’s exactly the point. A show (or a novel or a play), when it works, offers up a universe unto itself: one that’s like this world, but not-quite.
At a conference this spring, I heard a brilliant paper that explored the relationship between science fiction and depression. Basically the argument was that films (her examples were Melancholia and The Future) use the tropes of science fiction, especially that of Armageddon, to literalize the emotional experience of depression, especially the way that the end of the world might not be so bad after all.
Pretty bleak stuff, all told—but the thing I was left thinking about is the way that depression and narrative can work in similar ways, especially in their ability to create coherent worlds and all-encompassing explanations. After all, who is more convincing than a depressive? Part of the experience of depression is its impenetrability—if you’ve ever experienced The Pit, or tried to talk a friend up and out of it, you know what I’m talking about. Inside the experience of depression, everything you see, everything you experience is just more evidence leading to the inescapable conclusion that you’re a complete turd and that there’s no way out of your current misery. It’s a fully functioning narrative universe, with its own (awful) logic and rules.
Perhaps this is why, in my experience, stories are so much more engrossing when I’m depressed. Since I was a kid, narratives have worked in this way for me—imaginative play also works really well as a dissociative tool, it turns out. I don’t remember many details of my dad’s crazy alcoholic behavior, but I remember writing stories in school (much to my parents’ chagrin) about a drunk driver. When I was 22, and getting sober myself, I was so obsessed with Buffy that I would dream about Sunnydale. Part of the experience of being in the oppressively convincing closed system of depression is having another closed system into which you might be transported.
Which brings me to the late, lamented Awake. The pilot of this show was among the best I’ve ever seen, rivaling BSG’s “33,” and without BSG’s advantage of having already done the heavy expository lifting in a preceding miniseries. Lots of critics loved the pilot but doubted (rightfully, it turns out) whether the show would be able to sustain its premise for a single season, not to mention longer. And they have a point. The show’s hook is this: after experiencing a near-fatal car crash, detective Michael Britten awakens to find his reality bifurcated by grief, his son surviving in one world and his wife in the other, unsure which is reality and which is a dream. Each world has its own slightly different story logic: different partners, different cases, a different visual style (a green filter for Son World, red for Wife World).
At the same time that the show plays with this psychic switcheroo, it also tries to work as a much more standard genre cop show, complete with cases-of-the-week and an overarching conspiracy around the car crash that begins the series. As Britten goes about his daily routine as a homicide detective, clues from one reality give him insight into the case he’s working in the other, and he becomes a Superdetective, with unexplainable but unerring hunches that lead him to solve case after case. This veering back and forth between a visually and thematically daring structure and radically commonplace (if that’s possible) genre plots was ultimately the strangest element of the show, and was, in my opinion, what kept it from gaining the audience that would allow it to extend beyond a single season.
In a scene between Britten and one of his therapists at the end of the pilot, for instance, Britten explains that he’s uninterested in deciphering which reality is “real,” since choosing would be tantamount to killing either his wife or son. This was the moment in the pilot when I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears, identifying so strongly with this literalized representation of the denial that accompanies grief. But then, the episode immediately veers away from the suggestion that the show’s premise is all in Britten’s head, showing a shadowy meeting between higher-ups in the police department talking in cloak-and-dagger clichés about how Britten “knows too much” and might have to be “taken care of.”
Throughout the series, these shifts in tone gave me a serious case of the bends. Is the show a thinky psychological science fiction riff in the tradition of films like Donnie Darko, or a procedural cop show? Shows like Fringe and The X-Files have been able to achieve a balance between serialized and episodic storylines, but there is always clear thematic resonance between the two—something Awake never achieved. The cases and the conspiracy were consistently background noise to the much more interesting stuff about Britten’s grip on reality and his attempt to bridge his increasingly disparate roles as father and husband.
But here’s the thing: maybe what Awake is really about is the fantasy of the depressive. Retreating into a fully constructed reality won’t just save you, it will save everyone. The finale ends with a scene that at first appears to be the hackiest move of all, suggesting, Dallas-style, that the entire premise has been an elaborate dream, that the car crash never happened at all and that Britten’s wife and son are both alive and well. After some consideration, however, it is clear (and creator Kyle Killen has confirmed that this was his intention) that this third world is Britten’s fantasy, suggesting at least to my mind that both the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and the hacky conspiracy and procedural plots are both signs of Britten’s deteriorating psyche. This is why it’s so interesting to me that the procedural element is so uninventive and that this is where Britten’s detective “superpowers” show up—when we’re trying to make sense of something that can’t be made sense of, don’t we often retreat to well-trod turf? If a story makes the most sense or feels truest, that often has more to do with its familiarity than its accuracy. Britten’s (and the show’s) investment in generically familiar cop drama is both a sign of his depression and his way out of it.
Throughout the series, the procedural and conspiracy plots often felt like (and probably were) ways to expand viewership—attract a “cable” audience with the high-concept stuff, and a “network” audience with the standard cop show stuff. But what it ends up illuminating is the way that familiar generic myths form their own kind of language, one that can both cocoon us from unwelcome realities but also offer a space in which those realities insist on expression, however indirectly. Weirdly, then, in the end Awake works as a kind of mirror image to The Wire. While The Wire exposes the institutional costs of thinking that the law works “like it does on TV,” Awake focuses on the individual psychic price of that belief. Instead of showing us how the stories are a lie, Awake seems more interested in why we might remain invested in those stories even when they don’t line up with reality.