When I screened the network pilots back in the summer, Awake was instantly my favorite of the bunch. The mind-bending premise adds some added dimension to what is, essentially, another cop drama. Creator Kyle Killen saw his first show, Lone Star, canceled after only two episode last year; his first film, The Beaver, collapsed at the box office under the weight of star Mel Gibson's personal troubles. With Awake, here's hoping that this extremely talented writer has a chance to stick around for awhile.
Awake focuses on Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who has recently returned to the job after a traumatic car accident cost him a family member. Since the disaster, his world has been split into two realities. In one, his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) survived, while their son Rex (Dylan Minnette) died in the crash. When he falls asleep, he wakes up in a world where Rex is very much alive and Hannah was the victim of the accident. Every time he goes asleep in one world, he wakes up in another. In both realities he has been forced to see a therapist as a condition of his return to the police force. When Hannah is alive, he visits Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong), who warns that his condition could be very hazardous to his health. In his life with Rex, the more relaxed Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) views the reality split as a unique coping mechanism for dealing with his personal tragedy. Both therapists make strong cases for why their world is the real one and the other is merely a convincing dream. Michael, however, has no interest in solving this mystery, content to live a severed life if it means not losing one of two most important people in the world to him. In addition to balancing this complex personal life, Michael is also a working detective and in both worlds he is solving separate cases with different partners (played by Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama). Despite the cases seeming to be unrelated, Michael is able to use hints from one reality to help him solve mysteries in the other.
Awake is an incredibly tricky balancing act that sets up a rigid and unforgiving structure in its brilliant pilot. Despite the success of the format in the first hour, it's a bit of a relief to see it break away from that structure in later episodes, allowing Michael to spend longer amounts of time in a single reality. While that move causes the show to bear a greater resemblance to a typical police procedural, it feels less in danger of collapsing under the weight of its tricky premise.
Just as some fans of How I Met Your Mother long to know who Ted's bride will be and Lost fanatics yearned to learn the truth about the island, I'm sure there will be Awake viewers anxious to determine which of Michael's worlds is real, but I tend to side with the protagonist in not really caring all that much. Awake's strengths lie in the compelling drama of Michael's divided world and in how he uses his situation as a tool to help him be a better father, husband and cop. It's when the show feels the need to add some broader conspiracy elements that things get a bit strange and the show moves away from what makes it great.
Awake premieres Thursday 9pm on NBC.