NBC's Awake and the Problem with Screeners

The pilot of Awake, which premiered last Thursday on NBC, was an incredibly well-executed hour of television. The show is about a cop, Michael Britten, who lives in two realities that have diverged from a car accident that killed either his wife or his son. It had one of the strongest pilots in recent memory: the writing was crisp, the acting was great and the direction, which included a nice change in the color palette between realities, was fantastic.

There's been a lot of talk of late about the way we watch TV, whether the HBO model of "installments" (as opposed to episodes) is hurting TV, whether we take TV too seriously. Here's another theory: screeners are hurting TV. Awake's mediocre ratings, especially its precipitous drop this week, are a perfect example of their influence. Instead of watching the show way its audience does, TV critics are watching Awake with screeners, and that process is hurting the show's core concept.

Awake's concept is truly intriguing. While the logline of "cop in a split reality" seems like the kind of thing that would occupy one episode of The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, series creator Kyle Killen (Lone Star) inflects his character's situation with nuance and subtle care and makes the pilot more of a character study than a police procedural with a sci-fi twist. Whereas another iteration of the same idea would have the show's central question be "which reality is the real reality?," Killen and David Slade, the pilot's director, make us wonder instead, "does it matter?"

But any TV critics talking about Awake's excellent pilot tempered their remarks because, after NBC distributed the first two episodes for screenings, they all turned their focus to a scene at the end of the second episode, which aired last night. Essentially, the writers introduced a conspiracy theory to the double-reality storyline. The moment was a misstep: The show didn't need a conspiracy element—in a post-Lost world, it's really easy to assume that a show's larger mythology will be its undoing—and it didn't need to attempt to provide an answer to the "real" reality just yet, which the scene seemingly does since it is the only one not to include the main character. But worse than the scene itself was the fact that anyone who read about the show before its premiere or after the pilot's airing knew it was coming. Even without spoiling it outright, the intimation made it fairly difficult to enjoy the second episode.

It's the same for internet recappers, live tweeters, and plain old viewers: Whether you watch your shows on your actual TV on the night they air, later that week or over the weekend, or online at some point during the week, if you are watching a show as it is unfolding, you watch one episode at a time. TV critics, instead, get multiple episodes at a time so they can make an informed decision about the show.

But a part of watching a TV series is allowing the story to unfold from week to week. You would never dissuade someone from reading a novel because chapter one is great but chapter two is weaker. TV series require a commitment, and people are loath to get invested in a show if they have a strong sense that it will be cancelled before it reaches a satisfactory conclusion. This is part of the reason NBC, which had a rash of quick cancellations in the mid Aughts, has trouble launching a show these days.

And that's where Awake gets tripped up: why would anyone invest in a great pilot if critics are telling them that it won't make for a great series? Awake, regardless of the conspiracy aspect, really has something, and for all we know, it could tie together in a brilliant way—the same way the pilot weaved together the cases of both realities. The only way to know is to watch.