This year NBC has quite a problem in their 10 p.m. slot after “Comedy Night Done Right.” They consistently have tried to fit the slot with dramas like Prime Suspect and the even less successful The Firm. Now NBC fills the slot with a third show this season, the oft-delayed Awake starring Jason Isaacs. Based on the show’s pilot, Awake gives us NBC’s most unique and exciting drama pilot since Friday Night Lights and the most promising show in the last season.
Awake has a brilliant premise: after a car accident caused by Isaacs’ Michael Britten, he believes that he is involved in two different realities. In one, his son died in the accident, but his wife survived; in the other his wife died and his son survived. Every time he goes to sleep, he is taken to this other reality. These aren’t the only differences though; in the reality where his wife is alive, his detective partner (Wilmer Valderrama as Detective Vega) and therapist (BD Wong as Dr. John Lee) are different than his partner and therapist in the reality where his wife is dead (Steve Harris as Detective Freeman and Cherry Jones as Dr. Judith Evans, respectively).
The show also features two different aesthetics depending on which reality he is in. When his wife is alive, the color palette seems to be a bit brighter, and relies on reds and warmer colors in the hues, but when his wife is dead, the color is decisively darker, utilizing blues and darker colors. The pilot’s director, David Slade, did work on such stylized films as 30 Days of Night and Hard Candy, whose color palette also helped dictate story. This doesn’t exactly show preference to which reality Britten would prefer, since both realities have their own sets of problems. When his wife is alive, she hides her depression over her lost son through remodeling the house room by room, while when his son is alive, he is more distant and loses himself in tennis, the sport his mother used to play.
So as to not make things too easy, both partners show up occasionally while Britten is attempting to solve cases. In the pilot, Britten tries to solve the mystery of who is murdering taxi drivers and also who has kidnapped a little girl. He receives hints in both realities and by combining them is able to solve both cases, both of which have the same criminal. But in the pilot, both cases are kept in the background just enough, as if to demonstrate how the show will work, not to focus on the crimes, which don’t mean much in the long run.
Since Lost, there have been plenty of shows that try to tell separate stories that converge into a weekly story that is fulfilling, but most of these shows don’t succeed in pulling off that tightrope walk. Shows like Heroes, Person of Interest and even the promising Alcatraz can talk down to their viewers or dumb things down in an effort to keep people up. Awake doesn’t do that. Instead it gives out its basic premise quickly, goes right ahead doing what it wants and says to the audience, “look, we’re not going to hold your hand through this, try your best to keep up.” It’s a nice change of pace and keeps the viewers on their toes.
Awake also is quick to shoot down the idea that one of these realities is the “real” reality. Both sides have their own reasons why they are the true ones. Britten is told by one of his therapists that both realities will quit existing as soon as he is able to let either his wife or son go and that this dual life is his way of coping with the trauma he created. We also learn that Britten doesn’t remember anything up to the car crash, but had been drinking, both points which may be of importance in the future. By the end of the pilot, Britten admits he would rather go insane with these two ideas and keep both his loved ones than lose one and keep his sanity.
But a show with an interesting premise is nothing without a great cast to back the story up. With that, Isaacs is brilliant as Britten, a man who is risking his sanity to not lose his family. He always seems on the brink of bursting, yet keeping composed so as to not scare off those important to him. He explodes during one incredible scene, where Britten believes that he has lost both his wife and son and begins to cut himself to prove that he must be dreaming. It is dark, it is disturbing and it shows a man who is at his breaking point, terrified of the consequences of his own mind. Isaacs’ performance is nuanced and moving, reminiscent of roles like Jon Hamm in Mad Men or Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s high praise, but it’s powerful the amount of warmth and fear the man most known for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies can give off.
Awake does have quite a supporting cast as well: Wong and Jones both give convincing arguments to Britten’s problem as his two therapists, and Harris and Valderrama as the two detectives are quite effective. I also appreciated Dylan Minnette, probably best known as Jack’s son on the final season of Lost, as Britten’s son Rex. Minnette plays Rex as vulnerable and scared instead of as just the son keeping his father at arm’s length. Britten’s wife Hannah, played by Laura Allen, is also attempting to hide her damaged interior, through making changes in her life. She also seems ready to snap at any moment as well.
The pilot to Awake is shockingly good and surprisingly daring for a network TV show. Awake takes chances where other shows would be content with doing the same old, same old. Of course the show could fall into the trappings of most police procedurals, focusing on cases while sparingly giving off details in the larger picture, but from the pilot, it seems Awake will try to break away from that mold. Awake is such a welcome change and different from anything on network TV currently, both in style and substance, maybe NBC can keep that 10 p.m. Thursday slot occupied for quite some time for a change.