March 28, 2012

Don’t dream it’s over

You may remember I used to love that television show “Lost.” I was amused and delighted by the ways the writers convoluted the story in supposedly meaningful ways, reconfiguring archetypes and weaving a tapestry of Jungian connectivity that made it all seem … significant. I knew, of course, that it was manipulation, that it was nothing more than a highly creative way to keep people watching. At the very least, it tended to restore my faith in the idea that network television entertainment could be intellectually engaging.

But then, when it came time to land the series, the creative team seemed to lose its nerve. The series closed with a spoon-fed mess of pap and nonsense. David Letterman’s persistent and diminishing assessment (prior to the series’ conclusion), that all the characters were dead, was retrospectively more satisfying than the way the last episode presented the same idea.

But really, should we have expected anything more? What is it about our relationship to narrative that makes us expect a happy ending or, failing that, a satisfying conclusion? Nothing really ends well, and happy endings are no more than a matter of clever editing, an illusion that is exclusive to the concept of narrative.

And how can we allow ourselves to be disappointed by the way a story ends? Should we denounce the storyteller’s effort to entertain us? Forget those sweet, invented moments that delighted us along the way?

George Carlin used to do a bit about his pets, most of which had died. His beloved dog, Tippy, he explained, had committed suicide; he ran in front of a truck. He didn’t know why Tippy had done this, but, he said, he respected Tippy’s choice; he grieved and moved on. Regarding the mortality of pets, he said, “You’re supposed to know it in the pet shop. It’s going to end badly. You are purchasing a small tragedy.”

These ideas came to mind as I watched the pilot episode of the new series “Awake” (NBC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.). The conceit of the series is extraordinarily challenging: Michael Britten (played by Jason Isaacs, whom you may recognize as Lucius Malfoy from the “Harry Potter” movies), a police detective, has been in an automobile accident and one of his loved ones, either his wife or his son, has been killed.

Hereafter, he exists in a split reality, two separate narratives separated by a wall of sleep. In one story, he and his wife move on from losing their son in the accident, and in the other, he and his son struggle to connect after their wife and mother has died. It is suggested, as Britten undergoes therapy with two different psychologists in each storyline, that the other reality is a dream, but information gleaned from the different narratives provides clues to situations in the other storyline, suggesting that maybe both stories exist in dream reality.

It’s arguably an unsustainable concept, especially as the character undergoes psychoanalysis designed to integrate the character’s defense against facing whichever loss is “real,” but the character is determined to stay sick. At the end of the first episode, he explains that he has no interest in being well … if it means letting go of either of his loved ones.

Three episodes later, it seems like the creator, Kyle Killen, might be able to keep it going. While Britten is unable to tell which situation is the real dream, he has started to use his dual realities to mutual advantage; odd details from one narrative lead to clues that solve his various investigations in his other reality.

Killen, whose previous credits include “Lone Star,” a series about a man living a double life, and “The Beaver,” a movie about an obnoxious man trying to recover from a nervous breakdown by creating a second personality, which he presents exclusively through the use of a puppet, seems to be particularly interested in the psychological principle of personality integration.

Should we jump to wondering how “Awake” might end? Is this a narrative with a reasonably satisfying explanatory conclusion? Is there any chance that a show with such an acrobatic narrative concept will be given a chance to go beyond 13 episodes? I don’t care. It’s been engaging entertainment so far. Check it out.

For further consideration: It took 100 years to get it to the big screen, and Disney seems determined to kill your interest in their $250 million version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter,” but you shouldn’t miss it.