It seems that all the major networks saved their best shows for mid-season. In the case of NBC, they were holding back the season’s best new series, Awake [Thursdays, 10/9C] – a startlingly intelligent show about a police detective who is living two lives – in two worlds – simultaneously.
The series premiere opens with a car hurtling off a road and down an embankment – tossing its passengers around like rag dolls. When the driver of the car, Michael Britten [Jason Isaacs] awakens, he discovers that his son, Rex [Dylan Minnette, Let Me In, Saving Grace], died in the accident. When he goes to sleep, he awakens into a world where Rex survived and it’s his wife, Hannah [Laura Allen, Terriers] who died. Since both worlds can’t be real, one must, perforce, be a dream. But which one?
Obviously, following such a harrowing experience, Britten – who is a police detective – is required to undergo therapy to help him deal with the trauma. The thing is, he doesn’t want to deal. He can still be with his wife and son, even if not at the same time. Besides, each of his therapists insists that the other world is the dream – and it’s not like he’s incapable of doing his job in both worlds.
With a premise like this, you might expect things to get confusing. In the premiere, especially, each world is color coded. The world in which Hannah lives, his partner is Detective Isaiah Freeman [Steve Harris] and his therapist is Dr. John Lee [B.D. Wong], is shot with warm tones and reds as the predominant tones. The world in which Rex lives, his partner is Detective Efrem Vega [Wilmer Valderrama] and his therapist is Dr. Judith Evans [Cherry Jones], is shot with predominantly greens and blues.
In the ‘red’ reality, Britten’s partner is a veteran who’s comparatively affable but his therapist is pretty confrontational. In the ‘green’ reality, his partner is aggressive and intrusive, while his therapist is gently curious and empathetic.
In each world, there is a crime to be solved – though sometimes only one of the two is solved by episode’s end. Better, as the series progresses, things from one reality bleed into the other – in the premiere, Britten sees Vega as a uniformed officer in the ‘red’ reality, and the number of a parking space in one world correlates with an address in the other.
Despite Awake’s complexity, it’s so well written and directed that it’s not all that confusing – except when Britten is confused and therefore, we should be, too. Because the cast is so good, we can relate to them easily, regardless of which reality they inhabit.
In the four episodes made available for review, there are instances when a murder’s solution is obvious pretty much from the get go, but when that happens, it is used to create or support character development and add layers to the ongoing mythology. After all, when you’re dealing with two sets of characters – in two separate realities – there are times when the crime to be solved exists purely as a device to develop other things.
Just to keep things perking along, next week’s episode introduces Britten’s boss [Laura Innes in a recurring role] – in both realities and its final moments drop a bombshell that will certainly turn heads.
Awake is, for at least episodes, incredibly well written and filled with interesting characters. It also has a great look [or rather, a great pair of looks] and energy. It’s smart enough to demand you pay attention, but not so complex that you can’t keep up – but you don’t want to be doing a crossword, or reading a book while you’re tuned in, either. There might be one or two better shows on network TV, but I can’t think what they might be.
Awake deserves to be a hit – and NBC deserves kudos for taking a chance on it.
Final Grade: A+