Executive Producers Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) and Kyle Killen (Lone Star) have come up with a unique twist on the police procedural genre with their new series Awake.
Jason Isaacs plays detective Michael Britten, who is involved in a horrendous car accident, and finds himself awake in two separate realities. In one scenario his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) has survived the crash, but his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) has died. When Michael goes to sleep and wakes up he is in another reality where Hannah is alive and Rex is dead. In both realities the police department has assigned therapists to help him through his emotional trauma, Dr Evans (Cherry Jones) and Dr Lee (BD Wong).
Gordon and Killen spoke at the TV Critics tour about their intriguing take on an established genre.
This is one of the best pilots of the year, but where does episode two and three go? How far ahead have you plotted this series?
Kyle Killen: We think of this as a dramatic procedural. So on a week-to-week basis, there is a self-contained question and answer. There’s a puzzle every week.
There’s something that you can engage in and enjoy, even if your friends haven’t told you to watch it until episode four. Hopefully, then you’ll want to catch up on the over-arching story.
Why choose to have Michael be a cop?
Kyle: When you’re begging people to watch episode three, it’s hard to say, ‘But if you wouldn’t mind, go back and catch one and two, otherwise you’ll be lost.’ This show has a procedural engine.
There’s a case every week, and whenever you get to it, you’re going to engage with and hopefully find it interesting. Then that lets a later episode be the hook for going back and catching up.
You’re setting yourself up where one or the other of Michael’s realities has to be a dream, or the whole thing has to be a dream. Do you have any other way out as a writer?
Kyle: I think there’s a hundred ways out, but ninety-nine of them are unsatisfying to a large portion of the population. Even just discussing it amongst ourselves, I think there’s a lot of debate about what a satisfying ending to a big question like that is.
I personally think ‘it was all a dream’ is not particularly satisfying. So I think that we’ll work hard to at least avoid frustrating ourselves, and hopefully, entertaining you, should we have the opportunity to wrap it all up eight or nine years from now.
Are audiences too obsessed with the destination? Would it be a perfect world if it didn’t really matter, we just want to watch the show? Or do we need to be invested in some sort of outcome to enjoy that journey?
Kyle: I think it depends on the show. I think there are shows that constantly are raising the question about, ‘What is the end?’ I think that isn’t this show. I think this is actually a show about a man who is actively living in two worlds.
Our goal isn’t to constantly have you saying, ‘Well, what happens when this one or that one goes away?’ But to invest in the fact that these two worlds necessarily have to diverge as they get further and further away from the accident.
The drama is that he’s a man in the middle trying to keep a foot in both of them as they separate.
I think seeing those two worlds grow and change and become fuller and more real and markedly different over multiple seasons is really more what I think the experience of watching this show will be than a nagging question about, ‘How will it end?’
Is there a reason why Michael wouldn’t create a fantasy where both his wife and son survived?
Howard Gordon: It’s been a lot of fun finding the rules. It’s been a real challenge. Kyle described it at the very beginning of our encounter, which is this is a little bit like a vehicle for which there have been no operating instructions.
So we have written the manual and built the car while we’ve been going on the freeway at 65 miles-an-hour.
Can you talk about the significance of the nighttime sleep schedule Michael is on? What if Michael pulled an all-nighter?
Howard: I think one of the contracts with the audience is laying down some kind of guidelines for what works. And the symmetry of going to sleep and waking up works, at least for us to all get acquainted.
But we absolutely, in very short order, explore that very thing: What happens when the character is in a mental hospital in a hostage situation and gets hit with a nearly lethal dose of Haldol and starts hallucinating about a penguin?
How much more work does it create for you that Michael is in two different worlds in terms of mapping out stories?
Kyle: Our whiteboard is in a mess every week. You think you have [the story down] and then it’s like, ‘But he can’t be there because …’ it’s like putting together a Rubik’s cube every eight days.
Howard: And we actually color-coded it. Very early on in the process, just for us to understand it visually, we have Rex equals Dr Evans, equals green. And so anything in that story is green. Anything in the other story is red.
Will it ever come to a point where Michael convinces the people in one world that there is another reality, and they start communicating with each other between worlds?
Howard: One of the great gifts and virtues of the show is that Michael Britten is really a bridge between those two realities, and the tension and the frustration and some of the excruciating emotion of the show really is in his attempting to bridge this family, that he has both of them but not at the same time.
Awake gets it’s first airing on March 1, 2012