Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Awake: “The Little Guy”

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The second episode of Awake isn’t great TV like the pilot, but it’s a very enjoyable murder mystery for much of its running time, one that uses the show’s “two realities” conceit as a way to dig deeper into the characters and to set up intriguing differences between the two worlds. Scripted by series creator Kyle Killen, it has some hiccups here and there, but it mostly feels like something that shows how this whole thing can work as a television show going forward. There will be crimes. There will be clever solutions that call on our hero to use his knowledge of both realities to figure out who committed the crime. There will be some warm, human moments, where we see how the characters in both realities are moving on from their tragic losses.

And then there’s one last scene that’s so bad it made me want to give up on the show entirely.

Keep in mind: I didn’t give up on the show. NBC sent out another two episodes for review, and those are both solid, though not up to the level of this one. But that final scene, in which Laura Innes meets with some other guy and they talk about how they have to keep Mike in the dark about what really happened the night of the accident just made want to punch something. This is not a show that needs a conspiracy narrative about the truth behind the accident. It’s not a show that needs a mythology (something that seems to be hinted at here, by the discussion of the “little guy” tying into the ultimate answers about the accident, not just into the solution of the two-universe murder of Bernard Mackenzie). This is a show that has enough elements already. Adding another one just feels like piling on, particularly when it feels like the sort of low-grade “there’s a bunch of people out to get you, protagonist!” plot that would have driven all of those 24 clones that popped up in 2006.

That aside, there was plenty of fun to be had in this episode, if we can just ignore the final two minutes (and so we shall). I was pretty blown away by how the episode’s teaser neatly set up the two realities gambit and suggested the ways it’s helping Mike make small improvements in his life here and there, via something really simple. In this case, that was fabric softener, which Mike was forgetting to add to Rex’s laundry loads, thus making Rex’s clothes smell weird. In the other universe (can I call them universes?), he sees Hannah adding something else to the laundry. What is it? Why, it’s fabric softener, something he’s able to add to the laundry going forward to make things feel a little more normal to his son. At the same time, we get the hook for the crime this week: A doctor who seemingly had a heart attack was actually found to have been poisoned. Yet a homeless man with the same name was murdered in the other universe. How could these be connected?

To be honest, the show kind of punts on that question. We don’t get a good answer about the homeless Mackenzie murder, and the show admits that it didn’t bother to tie in this loose end. I think that’s probably fine, so long as the show admits that it’s going to do this from time to time. It’s certainly more “realistic” (if that term even applies here) to have certain cases that just don’t get solved because they involve homeless people, and the brass finds it hard to justify spending the money to wrap up the case of every homeless person who dies mysteriously. Plus, I liked the way that Killen made this whole thing feel like dream logic, almost. Mike hears about the “little guy” from the homeless man who’s rambling about nothing in particular. That leads him to the culprit in the other reality, but it also leads to him tripping the interest of the (sigh) conspiracy by digging up profiles of particularly short killers. I like the way the clues in both worlds tend to echo off of each other, rather than directly informing each other, and it makes the whole series feel much more like it’s taking place in some sort of extended hallucination (about which, see the stray observations).

The solution to the mystery of the dead doctor was the sort of thing every cop drama’s done a time or two, but it was handled well here. It turns out to be the computer-hacking kid, not the guy who’d been edged out of the two’s practice (and was 6’11”). Hacker kid found out that he was actually Dr. Mackenzie’s biological son, realizing that Mackenzie was using his own sperm in place of the sperm he was supposed to be using to impregnate his clients. The kid, understandably, wasn’t too pleased with this, so he found a way to kill Dr. Mackenzie that wouldn’t attract suspicion, only to be undone by one stupid mistake: He decided to erase his mother’s name from the doctor’s computer system, something that led the police right to his doorstep, where his story began to unravel.


And yet that story wouldn’t have unraveled if Michael weren’t following the insane clues he’s getting from homeless people in an alternate world. One of the fun things about Awake is that if Michael tries to explain too much of his thought process to anyone—even his therapists!—he’s going to sound crazy. I like that the therapists are there, even though they mostly exist for Michael to deliver exposition to, simply because they’re built in release valves for when the story gets too wonky. This is a story that needs to deal in heady genre concepts and case-of-the-week police stories and heartfelt emotional drama. I don’t know how long these two therapists can argue through Michael, but I’m finding the scenes in their offices some of the most fun, simply because they allow the guy to be upfront about the fact that he’s living in two worlds.

The emotional family story is also well done. It turns out that Rex and his friend have been building a motorcycle all this time. It’s something that Rex is apparently very good at, and the show does a good job of balancing what it means for the two realities: Hannah finally begins to pick up the pieces of her life and deal with the death of her son by learning this big secret of his; Rex tries to move on from the death of his mother by getting back into something he really loved. Yet he’s moving past it, growing and changing, like all kids do. He has a girlfriend, seemingly, and the bike is now more about a way to get to Coachella—and maybe get out of his increasingly sorrowful life. The final sequence where Rex and Hannah rode the bike in each reality was a little silly on the surface, but man, I liked it all the same. If this is all a product of Michael’s mind, he’s doing a good job of creating rough mirrors and parallels, designed to reinforce just how much things overlap between these worlds, even as they split off in very different ways elsewhere.


But that conspiracy, man. That’s troubling stuff.

Stray observations:

  • Todd’s crazy theory corner: The obvious answer, to me, is that they’re both real. Neither’s a dream. Michael’s just somehow gained the ability to flash between universes. That said, this episode also made me wonder if this is a long hallucination had by Michael while he’s dying in the car crash, a way to try to put things right in a situation where he knows his family will be killed. Notice how Laura Innes says his “whole family” was killed. Bah, who knows.
  • I really don’t need those little transitions designed to indicate we’re moving from universe to universe. They’re just goofy.
  • This one was directed by TV super director Jeffrey Reiner, and I think he did a good job of bringing David Slade’s visual aesthetic down to something that can work in a week-to-week series.
  • Todd’s stupid plotholes corner: There’s no way the first suspect would be watching a football game at that time of night in California. The games are over by 9 p.m. here, and usually by 8 p.m.
  • And with that, I’m bidding you farewell. The ever amazing Zack Handlen will be taking over the reviews going forward. With Community coming back, I’m just not going to have the time for this that it deserves, and Zack will do a terrific job.