You’ve got to give “Awake” creator Kyle Killen points for ambition. Despite its dubious debuting as a midseason replacement (the pilot will air on March 1st), “Awake” manages to be one of the more unique and unusual and complicated ideas in recent history. It’s a family drama, it’s a police procedural, it’s a story of love and loss, and yet it’s also something wholly different from all of those conventional genres.
“Awake” tells the story of Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), a police detective who ends up in a horrific car crash while driving home with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette). He wakes up to find that his wife has died, and must somehow find a way to go on living. He’s working through his difficulties with the help of his steadfast partner Isaiah “Bird” Freeman (Steve Harris), and a kindly, sympathetic department psychiatrist, Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones), all while trying to manage the tenuous and fragile relationship with his son.
Except that when he goes to bed, he wakes up to find that his wife is very much alive, and they are trying to deal with the loss of their son. He’s been assigned a new partner, the rookie Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama), and is seeing the more measured, pragmatic psychiatrist, Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong). He has different cases, different problems, and that’s what his life has become — a tumultuous, complex journey through alternate realities, never knowing which is the real world, and which is the dream world.
To be more accurate, as far as Detective Britten is concerned, they’re both the real world, even though he has no explanation. Therein lies the crux of the show, and what is both its greatest strength and possibly its weakness as well. The untitled pilot, which NBC generously released online well in advance of its air date, is a nicely atmospheric affair that lays its cards out on the table right from the start. Killen, the writers, and director David Slade (30 Days Of Night, Hard Candy, and Twilight: Eclipse) made the interesting decision to jump right into things — the show begins in one of the therapists offices, and they serve as the unusual narrative device that frames the entire series. Those visits provide the history behind Britten’s life as well as providing a broader, more clinical analysis of Britten himself. Unsurprisingly, they each believe that the respective other world is a construct of his fractured psyche, a kind of invented universe he creates in his dreams. Except, of course, they’re both vividly real to Britten, and he doesn’t know whether to believe one of them, or neither of them (“that’s just what the other shrink said,” he wanly tells one of them).
The pilot episode was a strong one, if a bit somber and sad (not to mention mostly humorless) for prime time television. The duality of Britten’s existence is a painful one to contemplate, a bittersweet examination of loss, and a peculiar yet intriguing family dynamic. What keeps it interesting and from getting too mawkish or maudlin is the procedural aspect of it, which is heightened by the fact that details from these disparate universes begin to puzzlingly bleed into one another. This has mixed results, though — at times it’s a nifty plot device, but at other times it seems like a clumsy contrivance as Britten comes to wild conclusions that, to his peers (and unfortunately in some cases to the viewer as well), can’t possibly be drawn logically, yet seem to pay off regardless.
The show is certainly bolstered by some solid performances, most notably Isaacs as the tormented yet strangely happy Britten. Yet equally critical are the strong showings by B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones, veteran actors in their own right who hold their own well as the caring yet concerned (not to mention incredibly skeptical) therapists.
Unquestionably, “Awake” would make for a fascinating movie, but whether it can sustain itself as a TV show remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see how the showrunners develop the story — part of me wants them to avoid any semblance of resolution, and simply have Britten wander through this baffling duality and either come to grips with it, or be torn apart by it. But that seems the unlikely scenario — at some point it’s going to need to begin to answer the question of why it’s happening, and that may ultimately be its undoing. Similarly, it’s already rife with some weird plot holes and inconsistencies that mar an otherwise enjoyable viewing experience. Just as people were unsatisfied with the answers given to them in shows like “Lost,” it appears that it may be difficult to satisfactorily resolve the human mystery that is “Awake.”