One of the most buzzed about pilots of the season has been the one for NBC's new police drama, "Awake." it's been circulating online for a few weeks now and premiered on Thursday, but I didn't get a look at it until this past weekend.
Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) is in a car accident with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and his son Rex (Dylan Minnette). Since that night, he finds himself switching between two realities, one where his son died and his wife survived the accident, and one where his wife died and his son survived. He also has a different partner and is seeing a different psychiatrist in each version. In the reality where his wife is alive, he's been paired up with rookie Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) and is seeing Dr. Lee (BD Wong). In the reality where his son is alive, he's with his old partner Isaiah "Bird" Freeman (Steve Harris) and is seeing Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones). Every time Michael falls asleep, he wakes up to a different life. He can't tell which one is a dream and which is real, but he's unwilling to give up on either.
"Awake" is a great looking production. Each version of Michael's Britten's reality is shot differently, giving us a colder, green-toned world where his son is alive, and a warmer, rosier world with his wife. And if the camera filters don't clue you in, the detective wears a different colored rubber band around his wrist to help him keep his realities straight, red for his wife, and green for his son. There's never a moment of confusion about which reality we're looking at - unless the script means for us to be. The idea might seem gimmicky at first, but it's well executed and subtle enough that I think that it can survive long term usage.
Jason Isaacs is certainly up to the task of shouldering the series. "Awake" is a good showcase for his talents, though it is odd seeing him as the good guy here after playing so many baddies in recent movies. Detective Britten isn't a particularly interesting character at this point, but Isaacs does a fine job of convincing us that he's thoroughly invested in both of the show's central relationships, and of the toll that leading two lives at once is taking on him. His best moments are the ones of uncertainty, when he noticies similar details in both worlds, and one intense scene where he loses track of which he's woken up to.
It's too soon to say much about the supporting cast yet, but I like the inclusion of the two psychiatrists, who have different treatment styles and bring up a lot of different angles on the situation and possible concerns that wouldn't come up in the normal course of Detective Britten's everyday work otherwise. They drive the more cerebral struggles that are the show's most unique and intriguing feature. Has Britten created an elaborate fantasy for himself to keep from dealing with the trauma of the car accident that he can't remember the circumstances of? And how on earth will this scenario be resolved in the end?
Unfortunately, we're not going to find out for a very long time, because "Awake" is clearly going to be another police procedural, and just about everything else I'm watching this year is some kind of crime or mystery procedural. The least interesting parts of the pilot were two cases that Britten solves simultaneously, and police work is bound to take up the majority of future episodes. I don't know how long the show can keep up the conceit of solving two related cases in different realities, while all the really interesting conflicts dealing with Britten's psychological state and metaphysical conundrums take a back seat to the action.
I think "Awake" would have worked better as a feature film, or perhaps a more limited series. I'd be willing to hang in for the duration if I knew that "Awake" was only going to be six or even thirteen episodes with a definite ending, like the similarly high concept "Life on Mars." I already have my own theories as to how the story of Detective Britten might conclude. However, this is an open-ended crime procedural that NBC that will want to run as long as they can. So, there's a distinct possibility that the pilot is likely as good as "Awake" is going to get, unless the creators find a way to add more hooks to the premise.