‘Awake’ and the Quippy Black Cop Trope

I quite liked Awake, NBC’s beautifully-shot and subtly-acted new show about a cop, Detective Michael Britten (a wonderful Jason Isaacs) confused about which of two worlds he’s living in is real and which is a dream. But one thing that struck me about the pilot is the way it handles Detective Isaiah ‘Bird’ Freeman (Steve Harris), Michael’s partner in the world where his son is still alive. Harris is good in the role. But as can be the case with black characters in cop shows or movies, he sounds like he’s in an entirely different show than the white characters he works with.

Part of it is that Freeman has some of the best, quippiest lines in the show. Much of the dialogue in Awake is muted, straightforward in keeping with the fact that this is a very strange situation that’s being treated as if it’s normal or sustainable by the person at its center. The fact that Michael and his therapists are trying to work through this situation logically and gently rather than making grand pronouncements about the utter weirdness of this lets us appreciate the power of Michael’s circumstances without constantly being bashed over the head about it. Freeman isn’t an actual exception to that rule, but he does spend a lot of time uttering koans like “This is why I’ve avoided success at all costs. You work your whole life to afford some nice stuff, so someone can come along and kill you for it,” or “Been a cop for 20 years. Only seen hunches on TV,” or “Remember when you used to think that solved and fixed meant the same thing?” It’s an oddly performative role.


And there was also a moment when Freeman and Britten were investigating a brutal murder when Awake’s writers decided to just straight up have Freeman channel The Wire’s Bunk Moreland. “You see this coffeemaker? $600. My ex-wife wanted one of these. I told her if she wanted a $600 coffee-maker she shouldn’t have married a police,” Freeman said, pronouncing police with an exaggerated “o.” “Eventually, we agreed on that.” I’m not saying it’s not a good line. But it’s a weird reminder that when it comes to black characters, folks seem to reach for archetypes first and to go through the process of developing original characters second.