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Of all of the pilots I’d seen going in to the 2011-2012 TV season, Awake was high on my list of most anticipated dramas. After screening the pilot at Comic-Con in San Diego last year, I wondered if the episodes that followed could possibly live up to the potential of the premise, or if the plot would quickly unravel as the two different realities became tangled together, resulting in a big, complicated mess of story. After screening a few more episodes, I was pleased to find that Awake only gets better with each new episode, delicately building onto its premise and developing the characters and the story nicely.
Created by Kyle Killen (Lone Star), Awake stars Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten, a police detective who is in a car accident with his wife and teenage son, after which he finds himself living in two different realities, one of which has his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) alive and their son Rex (Dylan Minnette) having died in the crash, and the other, in which his wife has died and their son survived. Every time Michael goes to sleep, he wakes up in the other reality. Which is real? We don’t know, nor do we know exactly why this is happening or how. Michael visits a bureau-assigned therapist in both realities to cope with the accident and grief. As Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) attempts to help him make sense of what’s happening (or what he claims is happening) in one reality, Dr. Lee (BD Wong) is working with him on the same thing in the other.
While Michael is dealing with two different kinds of grief and adjusting to the changes to his life in each reality, he’s also back to work as a detective, and handling different cases. His work as a detective adds a procedural element to the series, as a new case is introduced with each episode.
The idea of a man existing in two different realities may seem like a recipe for complicated, and hard to follow television. After seeing the pilot, I was concerned that we’d eventually get too caught up in trying to keep each reality straight to really be able to enjoy the show. I also feared that the detective work would feel more like filler than anything else, with the case-of-the-week being more a distraction than anything. So far, neither seems to be the case. In fact the series seems to be striking an exquisite balance of all the elements, bringing Michael’s personal life, his work, and his split-reality situation together into a story that’s not only relatively easy to follow, but also entertaining and emotionally moving.
Michael may have lost his wife or his son, but he has both of them in his life. It’s a strange predicament to be in, as his family has been fractured in both realities, with a wife who’s lost her son in one, and a son who’s lost his mother in the other. Meanwhile, his work as a detective keeps the story moving, and also ties into the switching realities in interesting ways, with a bit of overlapping between the two realities, which should set Awake apart from other detective procedurals.
While the excellent direction and subtle use of tone makes transitioning from one reality to the next virtually seamless, the acting is also top notch all around. The cast really couldn’t be better on this series, with Isaacs delivering a stellar performance as the intelligent detective, and loving father and husband who’s just trying to make sense of what’s going on and probably not entirely regretful to be experiencing a split reality. Both Wong and Jones are fantastic as the curious therapists. I already wish there were some way we could see these two on screen together. Meanwhile, Laura Allen and Dylan Minnette also deliver strong performances as Michael’s wife and son respectively. As do Wilmer Valderrama and Steve Harris, who play Michael’s partners.
I was already excited about Awake after seeing the pilot, but felt tentative about raising my hopes too high until I saw a few more episodes, to see how the concept worked on an episode-to-episode basis. After watching a handful of episodes, I feel positive that, assuming the show can continue to sustain the tricky concept as it does in the first few episodes, NBC has a winner with this one. I just hope that it has better luck in the Thursday at 10:00 p.m. time-slot than The Firm and Prime Suspect did. Awake is certainly a must-watch and intriguing TV for those in the market for a well-written, well-executed drama with a twist. And for those of you who already watched the premiere online, if you liked what you saw, you’ll be happy to know that the show only gets better from there.
Awake premieres Thursday, March 1 at 10/9c on NBC.
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