“Awake” is a show that is difficult to describe in a 21-second TV spot, so it comes as little surprise that the promo ads we’ve seen on NBC don’t do justice to the refreshing, original premise.
“Harry Potter” star Jason Isaacs steps seamlessly into the role of Michael Britten, a homicide detective who survived a horrific car wreck that killed his wife or his son. Yes, his wife or his son. In one world, Isaacs and his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) bury their son, Rex (Dylan Minnette). Then, Isaacs goes to sleep, and wakes up in a world in which he and Rex attend Hannah’s funeral.
He sustains this dual reality on a day-to-day basis, wearing a rubber band on his wrist to let him know which world he’s in — red, for Hannah, green, for Rex. Similarly, the show uses warm and cool colors, respectively, to help the audience understand which “world” he’s in. Ultimately, though the visual clues add to the tone of the show, they’re unnecessary, because the writers have a keen awareness of the potential for confusion and they provide plenty of clues in every scene.
The worlds are populated differently. Though friends and colleagues who were in Michael’s life before the accident are the same in both worlds, the characters who enter his world post-accident tend to be more exclusive to a certain world. He works alongside different partners in each world. When Rex is alive, they also interact with his tennis coach, Tara (Michaela McManus), who helps to serve as a confidante and a mother figure for Rex. With Tara, the series easily could’ve taken the route of a vixen who seduces Michael in a world where he’s lost his wife, but instead, she’s portrayed as genuine, honest, and trustworthy. The audience likes her, which is the foundation for a very new twist on a love triangle should the relationship move in that direction.
Michael’s key dilemma, as he visits with therapists (B.D. Wong in the Hannah reality, Cherry Jones in the Rex reality) mandated by the police chief, is that one of these realities must be a dream. In order to “get better,” Michael needs to let one reality go, which, to him, feels like the equivalent of killing either his son or his wife, because he maintains normal, if strained, relationships with both of them. When Hannah wants to move from Los Angeles to Portland to get a fresh start, and suggests trying to get pregnant again, Michael’s delicate balance begins to topple.
The dual life concept is one that has been explored by creator Kyle Killen before, with last season’s failed series “Lone Star.” Though it was met with critical acclaim and led by a strong cast, “Lone Star” was yanked from FOX after just two episodes. “Awake” succeeds where “Lone Star” faltered, though, as the “Lone Star” supporting characters never really made their way into our hearts. With “Awake,” the audience falls in love with both Hannah and Rex in the first episode, so the maintenance of both realities becomes as important to us as it is to Michael.
Of course, the series isn’t just about a man’s fractured mind and his psychiatric trauma thereafter. Michael still works as a detective and uses clues from both worlds to solve his cases, procedural-style. The case-of-the-week format makes it an easy series to jump into — you won’t be lost if you miss an episodes, though we’re not sure why you’d ever want to. Meanwhile, large, overarching mysteries keep us intrigued, including the circumstances of Michael’s fateful accident and a fugitive serial killer with a particular interest in the inner workings of Michael’s brain.
Where many procedural crime dramas leave out the personal lives of the main characters, “Awake” sets up camp on a perfect middle ground, allowing us to become invested in the cases and allowing Michael to take an hour off for his son’s tennis match as promised. The stakes are high, here, and they only become higher as the layers of Michael’s condition are revealed.
You won’t want to miss the premiere on Thursday, March 1, at 10 p.m. on NBC.