Netflix's 'Black Mirror'-esque Game Show 'Awake' Is Terrible, But Not In the Way You Think (But Also, In That Way, Too)
As the streaming wars approach with the impending arrival of Apple Streaming, Disney+, and WarnerMedia, Netflix is going to start shedding licensed content real soon, including all those Disney and Marvel movies, Friends, The Office, etc., and it’s going to be forced to operate like any other network trying to get as many viewers as possible. It cannot, as it once did, rest on buzzy dramas like Orange is the New Black or House of Cards. It can — and it has — successfully catered to specific demographics (Grace and Frankie for the old people (and Emily), Trinkets and The Society for young people, Narcos, Rain, and Dark for international audiences, etc.), it must also try and appeal to dumb people, too, hence The Ranch and Rob Schneider’s Real Rob.
The network is now reaching out a broader audience with lowest-common denominator programs like a cruel prank show hosted by Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo and the just unleashed game show called Awake. What is Awake?
Well, I woke up this morning to this exchange on Twitter between friend of the site Dave Chen and lifelong love of our collective lives, Courtney Enlow, who was up in the middle of the night scrolling through Twitter again:
HOLY FUCKING SHIT pic.twitter.com/lLfyHxCiqD— Courtney Enlow (@courtenlow) June 20, 2019
WAIT! Before you do what I did and immediately give into your morbid curiosity and dial-up Awake on Netflix to watch it, hear this: It’s not worth it. And I understand that a good percentage of you are going to need to see that to believe it, because we are only human, and no matter how awful Running Man is in concept, you know we’d watch it because we’re an awful species, but trust me on Awake: It’s not worth it. And that’s not because, by watching it, you’re contributing to the ruination of society or anything (although you probably are), and it’s not because you should feel guilty about encouraging these Black Mirroresque game shows (although, probably you should), and it’s not because I take issue with your desire to satiate your need for schadenfreude. I get it, and it’s why within 90 minutes of seeing that Twitter exchange, I’d already watched three episodes of Awake.
The real reason you shouldn’t bother watching is that it’s … not nearly as interesting as you think it might be. It’s all the awful with very little of the entertainment value. I mean, yes: It is exactly as advertised: A group of people are asked to stay awake for 24 hours counting quarters, and then they are asked to compete in challenges that test their hand-eye coordination (how many needles can they thread!), their reaction time (how quickly can they smash an egg in their face!), their logical skills (match the sound to the animal!), and how much Slushie can they drink after sleep deprivation makes them more susceptible to brain freeze?
All of this probably makes Awake sound even more darkly compelling, doesn’t it? You kind of want to watch it for the same reason you didn’t change the channel that one time you stumbled upon that summer game show Wipeout, don’t you? Because you want to see how dumb it really is?
I can’t stop you, but I can tell you this much: It’s all pretty boring. I mean, first of all, how much drama do you expect to get out of 6 contestants counting quarters for 24 hours (very little, which is why it’s condensed down to a 60-second montage). As for the mind games and other challenges? Consider what it would actually be like to watch sleepy contestants drink slushies? Does that in any way sound interesting to you? Do you really want to waste five minutes of your precious time watching people thread a needle? Or try to balance a ball in a tube? It’s just not that interesting, and the contestants don’t give the editors trying to whittle the show down to only the highlights much with which to work.
Participating in a show like Awake might be fun as a social experiment, but watching it is a drag, like being the one sober guy in a group full of stoned people. Once you’ve seen one episode, you’ve basically seen them all. There’s no addictive, binge-worthy quality to it. And the final round is either cruel or more often than not, boring. Basically, the last contestant standing is asked how much money in quarters did he or she count during that 24 hour period (it’s usually around $25,000). He can guess, or simply take the money. If she guesses within $500, she gets all the money counted by all the contestants (or around $120,000). If she wants, she can take that money home, or go for the $1 million, which means guessing within $25. As the Newsweek review reveals, the first contestant risked it all and went home with nothing, but spoiler, the next two contestants did not, and I expect that most of the contestants won’t risk it.
Look: It doesn’t matter how high concept the game is, a game show does not work unless you’ve got a good host, there’s camaraderie between the contestants and the host, and the audience at home feels invested. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune have worked for decades because we are playing along at home. Price is Right allows us to guess along with the contestants. Match Game works despite it being a lousy game because Alec Baldwin is an exceptional host. There’s none of that in Awake. The only thing the audience at home is given is the ability to laugh at people who are sleep deprived, but 1) there’s not much to laugh at, and 2) it often feel cruel to do so. Meanwhile, the host, James Davis, is terrible, in part because of the repetitive nature of the show, and in part because it’s hard to build any camaraderie with loopy, sleep-deprived contestants. The novelty of the gimmick has a very short shelf-life, and once it has worn off, Awake is an unsurprisingly joyless, repetitive, and boring affair.
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