In NBC’s new drama Awake, Detective Michael Britten (played by Jason Isaacs) finds himself in two separate realities following a tragic car crash: one in which his wife died and the other in which his teen son did. Whenever he goes to sleep in one world, he wakes in the other, wearing a red rubber band when he’s with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and a green one when he’s with his son Rex (Dylan Minnette). Seeing two different therapists and working with two different police partners, he struggles to discover which of the realities is real while using clues from both worlds to help him solve unique crimes.
“One of those worlds is real and the other is a dream he has created to compensate for it,” series creator Kyle Killen said. “The therapists in each world argue that their world is reality and the other one is a fiction created by his brain, and ultimately what we see in the pilot episode is that he’s actually less interested in figuring out what’s real and what’s not than maintaining those two worlds because as long as he’s got both of them, he’s got access to his wife and his son and he hasn’t really lost anything. The upshot for a detective living across two worlds is he discovers that cases in one seem to be reflected or replicated in the other. That provides him with insight and clues to do his job differently than before and differently than any other detective that we’ve gotten to see on television.”
Killen, who was also responsible for the 2010 drama Lone Star, said Awake came about because of questions inherent in that short-lived Fox series.
“I think when that ended, some of those questions of duality and trying to go about living your life in two spaces were still moving around in my head,” he said. “That was something that was still of interest to me and this seemed like a good vehicle for exploring a lot of that. The concept of the way your dreams feel real, the way you seem to experience them as something that you don’t blink at until something crazy happens and bursts that balloon. I became interested in the question of ‘What if nothing ever popped that balloon?’ ‘What if you couldn’t tell the difference between when you were awake and when you were asleep?’ I started looking for a way to marry those two ideas up and a few months later, we had Awake.”
According to Executive Producer Howard Gordon, the show really began to come together after casting star Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter). “We obviously started with the lead, Michael Britten, since he shoulders so much of the story,” he said. “At the very beginning, we were afraid until we decided we could actually break point of view he would actually have to be in every scene. For anybody who’s ever done hour-long television knows that’s actually pretty impossible. Anyway, there’s a very short list of leading men of a certain age who are substantial, and Jason Isaacs is at the very top of that list. We were lucky enough to [get him]. … He was very sketchy about whether he wanted to do television and he was as intrigued as I was by Kyle’s pilot and he jumped in.”
Conceptually, the show mixes procedural and science-fiction elements, but at its core, Awake is about emotions rather than the exploration of dual realities.
“It’s not about the space/time continuum or particle theory or string theory,” Gordon said. “It’s really about an emotional response to loss and how this man mind created the premise we’re enjoying dramatically.”
“It feels less like an exploration of the forefront of our knowledge than it is [science fiction],” Killen continued. “If it’s science fiction, it’s emotional science fiction. It feels less science-y and more personal. It’s something you do in response to great, deep personal need as opposed to because the laws of physics allow it.”
One of the major challenges producers faced in Awake was keeping the two realities straight during the writing process, leading to an incredible level of color-coding and organization.
“We found we would get confused when discussing what someone was pitching or talking about,” Killen said. “We adopted [the concept where] one world is the green world, and that’s the world where he has his son and his partner is Bird and his therapist is Dr. Evans. That matches his green rubber band. When we’re talking about it, we use green marker and green note cards. Our outlines are written in green and red ink — anything to make it crystal clear that the other world with his wife and Vega partner and Dr. Lee, it’s always red. That is reflected in the final product in the way the show itself is shot and color-timed. The two worlds have a different feel. The things that are initially confusing to us when we’re trying to break story, by the time they reach the audience, so much attention has been paid to how to make it clear where you are that all the little tricks we needed go away. Hopefully when you see it on the screen, you’re instantly oriented in the world you’re in.
“It’s an inherent question at all time. People and events that take place in the show on a weekly basis seem to reflect on the nature of what is real and what is manufactured. Sometimes, pursuing those questions are important to the case that he’s on or understanding his own story as he looks back at the events that happened to him to cause this situation, this accident that got him here. Long term, the show isn’t built around answering a single question — which is real. The show is really about a man who has decided and desperately wants to live in both of these worlds, who refuses to acknowledge which is real and which isn’t. As you try to live two lives in parallel and you see them start to go in dramatically different directions, I think the idea is the audiences likes the character and becomes invested in not wanting to let either of those go.”
Killen also spoke to the challenges the actors, specifically Isaacs, had during filming.
“Sometimes it’s as difficult for them as it is for us,” he said. “Not only is the show two stories in two worlds, but it’s not shot in order. So, this scene isn’t just this scene, this scene has to reflect not just what would have come before it but what would have come before it in the other world, and therefore informs your opinion as a character of this scene in a way that is different than anybody else in the scene: You’re carrying with you a clue or notion or sense of urgency that nobody else shares. I think Jason goes to great lengths to keep track of those things and bake them into his approach to a scene. He does that through an incredible amount of research and preparation. He invests a lot of time on every scene and making sure he gets, knows and understands what he and everyone else in the scene needs to be doing so that it will track for the audience.”
Howard said the big question of what really happened the night of the car accident will be a driving force to the end of the first season.
“That question will ebb and flow over the course of the first season, but there’s also a big question that is answered that we drive toward the end of the season, which is what really happened that night?” he said. “That’s a question that will be answered and should give people a pretty strong sense of closure.”
Killen noted that while the creative team has a good idea of where the series will end up, nothing is set in stone.
“We have some pretty distinct ideas about where it’ll go and how we would like to sum it up,” he said. “I think also part of the joy of this process is leaving yourself open to the inspiration that comes with putting a bunch of creative people together and letting the story evolve. Rather than being dogmatic about something, letting a group of people discover it together is frankly why you do the job.
“I wouldn’t take anything off the table. I also don’t want it to seem amorphous and like we don’t have heated discussions about what ultimately is satisfying and what I’ve always imagined it to be. For the moment, that’s also part of the joy of being on a show like this. You get to tackle really, really big questions like that. We hope to be around long enough to put that out there.”
Although Awake has a high concept and a driving plot, Killen insisted the show isn’t completely serialized. “I think Lost and 24 inspired a lot of imitators who tried to do the same thing and didn’t meet with success,” he said. “I think the risk with a completely serialized show is that your audience is all-in or all-out. That’s a tremendous gamble. We’re very interested in the serialized elements of the story, but we also recognize in the fractured landscape of television today it’s hard to get everybody to commit Week One. What you really want to do is leave the door open so hopefully good word filters out and people can come to it without feeling hopelessly behind and giving up. Promising people that if Week Six is the first week that you watch, you’re going to get a satisfying hour of television that you can completely follow and understand, hopefully that experience makes you excited about going back and catching up. I think the trend is toward making sure your audience has an opportunity even if they’re not there Week One.”
Gordon, who previously worked on the heavily serialized 24, spoke to the difficulty of doing a serialized show. “I think having done 24 and recognizing from inside how nearly impossible it was and how that particular conceit worked in a densely serialized format, there’s a barrier of entry that it creates, there’s a mercenary aspect to it as well,” he said. “Shows that you can occasionally watch or sporadically watch are more syndicatable. So the studio is more incentivized to choose shows that have standalone beginnings, middles and ends.”
However, the semi-standalone format of Awake isn’t without its challenges.
“The show lends itself to so many different directions — it’s a procedural, it has serialized elements, it has cop stories and it has personal stories — finding the right balances for that and the way you could tell the different stories in a satisfying way in the course of a single hour-long episode, it felt like a magic trick and those take time to pull together,” Killen said. “The break allowed us to assess what we had learned and going forward we were doing the things we did best and really learning from the things that we’d found hadn’t quite worked the way we hoped. Hopefully the episodes that came on the other side of that really reflected everybody’s best effort and our best product.
“It was about discovering there isn’t one set template,” he continued, saying the story would go to each world as needed, rather than spending an equal amount of time in each for every episode. “You have to let the story, whatever it is, lead the shape of that individual show. I think trying to write the show by checkboxes or being dogmatic about how much of this or how much of that or of this character or that character, that really didn’t work. It does more if there are episodes that naturally be more in the red than the green or more in the green than the red. Part of what’s fun about the show is the duality. In some ways, everything we’ve done with the show always touches on both of those worlds, but we absolutely have episodes where one significantly takes the lead over the other. It balances out in the end — both worlds in an episode-to-episode basis are always pretty evenly represented, but on an individual episode basis it was very freeing to decide they didn’t have to be split down the middle.”
Although Awake has a whole slew of competition as a midseason series, Killen is positive about the show he and his team have created.
“There’s always competition, it always seems like an impossible task to launch one of these things,” he said. “I think ultimately, you as a group of creative people who are committed and excited about something have to put forward the best version of it that you can and when you get the support of a network like NBC and their marketing arm, you do your best to draw people in. Ultimately, I think it’s probably the quality of the product and people’s enthusiasm for it. Commercials can only do so much. What do your friends and the people you respect and the critics that you listen to say about it? That’s what I think pierces the haze of marketing for the millions of entertainment options that are available: What is somebody telling you, ‘This is worth it, this stands out, this is worth your time and commitment’? We hope and believe we put together something like that and we will soon see how many people agree with us.”
Awake premieres tonight at 10 ET/PT on NBC.