‘Awake’ Not Trying to Answer ‘What’s Real,’ Producers Say

by | March 1, 2012 at 1:00 PM | Awake, Interview, Interviews

Jason Isaacs in Awake (NBC)

If piecing together puzzling plots is your forté, you will want to check out “Awake,” the newest series from executive producers Kyle Killen (“Lone Star“) and Howard Gordon (“24,” “Homeland“), which deals in alternate realities.

The premise of the series seems simple enough at first look: LAPD detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, “Harry Potter,”) is involved in a fatal car crash that has led to the death of a member of his family. The complications — and the complexity — come in when Michael realizes he is leading a double life.

In one reality, it is his teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette, “Saving Grace“) who has died and his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, “Terriers“) is alive; but then Michael falls asleep and when he wakes up, the opposite is true with Hannah dead and Rex very much alive. So Michael, in order to keep both loved ones alive, begins living dual realities — with the help of dual shrinks (played by B.D. Wong, “Law & Order: SVU” and Cherry Jones, “24″), who each insist that the reality that they are in is the real one.

“Awake” premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC, but first we speak with Killen and Gordon to get their take on the intriguing drama.

Watch a Special Preview of the Pilot Episode:

Given the nature of mythology shows on television, a lot of them are struggling heavily because fans are resistant to believe answers are coming. Do you have a road map for when answers will come for big questions, such as which reality is real — if either of them is?
Kyle Killen: I think the question of the crash is the story of the first season. So I think if you can stick with us for 13, then you’ll get an answer on that. To us the issue of what’s real and what’s not, it’s not really a question the show’s trying to answer, because it’s actually a question the character is trying to avoid the answer to. To us what’s more interesting is, once you stake your claim with wanting to live literally in two different worlds that are going two different directions, the drama and the conflict come from seeing a person who is trying to live in two diverging universes. So I don’t know that we’re out anytime soon to answer the question of what’s real and what’s not. We’re actually out to answer the question of what happens when you absolutely, fundamentally refuse to commit to one or the other being real.

Howard Gordon: I don’t think it is a mythology show. It just has a premise that’s interesting and it certainly has the idea of that is the umbrella over which is real, which isn’t. But the fact is, he’s a guy who wakes up in one world with his wife and the other with his son and solves crimes across those two worlds. So, it is an engine that’s very durable and isn’t dependent upon what came before or what’s going to come after in terms of building blocks of the show.

Is there an element of the show that is built around the audience discovering hidden clues, talking about it online with forums and coming up with theories and such?
Kyle Killen: We are only deeply into planning out and mapping the first season, but I think in telling the story of what actually happened to Michael, what the accident was about and then doling that out… we begin in the first episode. Long before the answers are there, the things that at least the character is picking up on, whether he is doing it consciously or subconsciously … we try not to waste anything. So I think the Internet has certainly shown that people are hyper-observant television viewers. So I would say this show certainly rewards people who invest in television that way. And if that’s something that you enjoy then I think it offers those little clues and hints and you’ll see those things woven together by the last episode of the season.

In each episode, will the cases Michael is solving in one world help solve the cases in the other world, or is that just in pilot?
Kyle Killen: No, that’s kind of fundamentally the design of the show that they are interlocking narratives that whichever is real and whichever is a dream, one is trying to inform the other. It doesn’t always mean that it’s two cases. Sometimes there is something going on in his personal life in one world that it is calling attention to something in a case in the other and vice versa, but that overlapping interplay is sort of fundamental to the show itself.

Will Michael ever get savvy to that? Like will he start looking?
Howard Gordon: This sort of super power presents itself in the pilot to him for the first time. So while he knows that he is living in two worlds, it’s the idea that this thing begins to crossover, so he’s suddenly finding himself with this new insight. How he uses it and how he looks for things and how his attention is drawn to certain things that appear to him in one world and that he pursues in the other is absolutely the meat of the show.

Kyle Killen: What it can do and what can’t it do and is it pre-crime? Are you seeing the future in one world? Those are questions that he explores and dispatches. As any superhero who has discovered a power, he’s trying to figure out what are the edges of it, what it can do and can’t it do.

It’s hard to play favorites, but does either of you have a favorite universe?
Kyle Killen: I think the universes for me change on a week to week basis.

Given that there are consequences for keeping his brain so active for a considerable amount of time, as we go further in the season is there a chance there will be like a merging of these two universes?
Kyle Killen: Yeah. If half of your existence is imagined, when it begins to appear in the other half and you never know whether you are awake or asleep, that loss of a clear delineation between the two worlds is something that’s in a couple of different episodes. We have found ways to play with it. Whether it’s something hallucinatory or just something feeling extraordinarily dream-like which it could be. It is understandable why Michael has to have different shrinks, but why does he have to have different partners?

Howard Gordon: Well, part of this thing is an exercise, too, in keeping it clear and making it legible for an audience. I think, one of the exercises was that when characters appear across both worlds other than Britten, you have to make sure it’s something that you can keep straight. So just to really avoid confusion, to sort of keep it simple, so that while we are educating the audience in terms of how to watch the show and follow the stories, they can keep it clear. I think, we can start adding those crossover characters in once people are more familiar with how it works.

Is the mystery of the brain a benefit to the story? Or is this an actual condition, a very rare condition?
Kyle Killen: It’s not literally a condition. I think this character may be the only person in the world with it, but I think the underlying science, particularly the fact that everything you see … it’s your brain constructing it from various firing nerves and so and so forth. My wife is an ER doctor. One of the places it came from, she had a patient and the chief complaint on his chart was that he was covered in worms. She went in and he was a very normal 23-year-old guy who knew his name, the day or the week, who the president was and seemed completely lucid. He was very confused about why she couldn’t see that he was covered in worms. For him and his brain in a completely awake and lucid state, those worms were totally real. I think you realize just how thin the tether between you and reality is and how dependent you are on your brain seeing what everybody else’s sees and this character is somebody who can’t always count on that being the case.