Awake and the Gap Between Broadcast and Cable

Maybe sometime in the future, we’ll append important dates in television history with tags such as AL and BL, after anno-Lost and before-Lost, respectively. Like, ‘new drama Awake appeared on NBC this past Thursday, March 2012 AL…’ This isn’t to say much about the quality and innovation of Lost as a series (because really, what did Lost do that Twin Peaks didn’t do more than a decade prior?), but more observably, Lost convinced many a TV writer that it was possible to go high concept on broadcast television – get weird with storytelling, expand arcs beyond an hour, manage pacing more organically, and still deliver Nielsen-wise. Admittedly, at the same time this sort of artistic experimentation was already happening in spades on the premium channels.

The most riveting, critic-baiting dramas of recent years have arguably all sprung forth from a gated premium-cable community that, prior Netflix and its ilk and the digital revolution, compelled several to call upon their shady friend with the ‘fixed’ cable boxes in his trunk to keep up with the ongoings of gangsters in Jersey or drug dealers in Baltimore. From then ’til now, with very few exceptions and the arrival of de facto freemiums such as AMC, the common wisdom has it that higher quality of drama is implicit when you opt for the higher cable bill; more cerebral or risky television can be found in these select places, if you buy into the hype (which the large number of subscribers proves beyond doubt.) There’s some heavily acclaimed shows being pumped out these days with unconventional premises and surprising development (Breaking Bad; Weeds, in its prime; ) on networks that, for a while now, have built their brands firmly upon acclaim. However, the viewership, the numbers, the advertising revenue, often fail to hold a candle to even an NCIS: Topeka on the big broadcast networks.

There’s an apparent divide.

Explicating on it brings up philosophical questions about the function of television itself in this country (Is it just for fun? Is it art? Is it just the pace between commercials? Can it really function as all three?); and sometimes polarizes viewers. In AL times, a time when the divide is most apparent mostly because of the novelty of a show having crossed it, television shows sometimes seem to be abhorred almost as much for being bad as they are for their overzealous fan-bases that cite the divide for their poor performance. “If Community struggles because it is ‘too smart for people to get’ and would ‘do great on IFC’ or blah blah blah, then… fuck you” is pretty much the sentiment on several blogs and forums (not that I would know. I’m too cool for that sort of stuff. heheheh)1 TV preferences and opinions have always been various but recently it’s become clear, the various have no need or willingness to even co-exist. The very fact that no reality-TV discussion will ever be showcased on this blog reflects my similarly pretentious allocation of worth to some things on television while completely ignoring others, in spite of and perhaps because of the prominent narratives about those unscripted shows.

My point is that we may not fully understand the divide well enough to effectively map out the television landscape without hurt feelings, but its presence is certainly being felt, especially when a show like Awake seems to challenge some of its paradigms.

Awake, on the surface, is a fairly standard police procedural. The creator, Kyle Killen, is known for also creating Lone Star, which aired briefly on FOX in 2010 (Doesn’t sound familiar? Blame the divide, I guess.) Wilmer Valderrama, in a redemption role after offending so many mamas, plays a rookie, sidekick to the main protagonist. Steve Harris plays a more seasoned, more Black sidekick to the main protagonist. The psychiatrist from SVU is playing one of the protagonist’s psychiatrists. So the cast is as loaded as it need be.2 The show gets weird when you realize that protagonist, detective Britten, as you might have surmised, is living a sort of double life. And not the I have a fiance in Topeka and a wife in Tulsa sort. The my wife is dead and I’m a single father when the lens filter is cool, and I’m mourning my dead son with my very alive wife whenever the color palette turns warm sort of double life!3 That’s cool. The critics love the series. More importantly, they love to talk about it. They have since last June.

But what is really impressive, at least in regards to what has been discussed here, is that in essence this series is plainly two police procedurals. The innovation to the broadcast TV formula is effectively and inexplicably just multiplying the standard police procedural formula by two, and doing it exceptionally well. Awake is a damn good procedural too. It watches like BBC’s Luther in tone and earnestness, like the good parts of AMC’s The Killing. But it has this structure that’s so weird, it challenges our relationship with cop shows en masse. Two big cases, not just one, will probably be solved each week. Satisfying? Should be. But there’s a big overarching mystery, that will be mulled over at the pace of a psychiatrist helping you address your persistent maternal sex dreams. It might seem like a series of hours but much more is going on under the covers.

I’m excited about this series. Not confident in its success in the days AL. But excited nonetheless.


1 I’m not in fact cool.
2 Also on the show: a Death Eater and the kid who played Jack Shephard’s son in the sideways universe
3 Sincere exclaims!!! Yea, I’m not cool.

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