Awake is still our favorite new show on television this spring — with the second episode treading ground that's just as interesting as the first, in terms of main character Michael Britten and his relationships with his son and wife, each of whom are dead in one reality and grieving in the other.
But the biggest question about Awake, all along, has been how this show will balance its compelling character study, of a man with a fractured life, with its emphasis on having two police cases every week — one in each reality. The danger is that the cases of the week will be kind of weak sauce, and will cross over in a somewhat random, possibly even boring fashion. That danger was fully manifested this week.
That's not to say that "The Little Guy" wasn't still a mostly great hour of television. It definitely was. Just like the first hour, this episode was emotionally intense, and at times seemed to be reaching for some very profound things about the nature of grief and loss. It's just that the cases of the week were... well, weak.
The main focus of "The Little Guy," really was, on the story of Rex and his friend fixing up a motorcycle together, in secret. And the clever thing about the episode was that, instead of giving us two unrelated stories about Rex and Hannah Britten dealing with different things, instead we had a single story woven together across the two universes. Along the way, the episode sort of addresses different ways of dealing with someone's absence from your life.
So Hannah is continuing to try and forget her dead son, in spite of Michael's attempts to keep Rex's memory alive — and meanwhile, Michael is trying to bond with Rex, but he's having a hard time doing the things that Hannah used to do, like cooking and laundry. (Yes, Mom Stuff. This show is definitely not shy about reaching for gender stereotypes and slight cliches.) But after a bunch of stuff which Rex had mailed to his friend's house turns up, Michael wants to look at it and Hannah wants to ignore it — until she finally changes her mind and discovers that Rex and his friend were working on a motorcycle. There's a really lovely moment where she tells Rex's friend that he should finish the motorcycle.
And meanwhile, in Green World, Rex and his friend are still working on the motorcycle, behind Michael's back — until finally Hannah tells him in Red World what's going on, and he lets Rex know that he knows in a nice, understated scene. Instead of chewing his son out, he just says, "Wear a helmet." The story ends with Michael seeing the motorcycle for the first time, in both realities — in one, being ridden by his wife, in the other by his son.
The other thing that's really fascinating this time out is that the two therapists start disagreeing more pointedly — Dr. Evans, in Green World, believes that Michael is using his "dream" of Red World to work things out, since it helps him figure out that Rex is building a motorcycle. And Red World helps him solve the murder in Green World — more on that in a second. Meanwhile in Red World, Dr. Lee believes that anything Michael learns in Green World is useless, because the subconscious is an unreliable narrator. And he seems to have a point, because this time around Michael gets nowhere in Red World, spinning his wheels on a hopeless case.
So about those cases... in Green World, there's a fertility doctor who's murdered in a way that looks like a heart attack. And... you know how we were joking recently that any time you see a fertility doctor on television, it's always the case that he's impregnating women secretly with his own sperm? (This theme will never be done better than it was on Bakersfield P.D.) Anyway, the moment you hear that Dr. McKenzie is a fertility doc, it's a foregone conclusion that he's having hundreds of secret babies. Because it's a Law of Television.
Anyway, it turns out the doctor was murdered by one of the kids he fathered — because that kid decided it was better to kill his genetic dad rather than, I dunno, show up and demand hush money or child support or whatnot. The kid's motive didn't really make much sense. The main point of the case was that Michael keeps looking for a suspect who's a "little guy," because a raving crazy person in Red World fingered a little guy as the killer of a different McKenzie.
The other case, in Red World, goes absolutely nowhere, because it's a month-old cold case, and the murder of a homeless guy with a bunch of priors. So eventually Britten is ordered off the case, and he reluctantly goes off to investigate a stabbing with his new partner Vega, who's been busting his chops. (Although actually, Michael is being a total dick to Vega, basically trying to get the newly minted detective to be his bitch and stop asking questions.)
But then it turns out Britten's search for the "little guy" who killed the homeless McKenzie isn't useless after all — because in the kicker, we see Captain Harper (Laura Innes, still being an evil mommy like she was on The Event!) meeting with a mysterious man. It turns out Mystery Guy arranged the accident that killed Britten's wife or son, and they're counting on Britten not to remember anything about that night. And the actual perpetrator of that accident? A small man.
So now we start to untangle the conspiracy behind Britten's accident — which is intrinsically less interesting than the mystery of what's happening with Britten's two worlds. This show is already settling into a pattern where it's at its most interesting when it focuses on its characters and themes — and perhaps a bit less interesting when it tries to be a cop show. Let's hope the creators can supercharge the "cop show" elements while keeping the character stuff front and center.