Awake has a premise that’s complicated to explain but was easy to follow when you watched it. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter; Brotherhood) stars as a cop who was in a car accident with his wife and son. When he comes to, he thinks his son Rex died and his wife Hannah still lives. But when he closes his eyes to sleep, he enters an equally believable reality in which his wife died and his son lives. He toggles back and forth between these two states and quickly discovers that he just does not know which one is real. (Or if both are?) (And when does this guy get any rest?)
Believe me, it takes longer to type out that explanation than it does to get hooked on — or at least intrigued by — Awake. The premiere episode showed all the potential strengths, and a few of the potential weaknesses, of this series created by writer Kyle Killen. Killen got a taste of Hollywood’s whipping lash when his promising 2010 series Lone Star was cancelled by Fox after two low-rated episodes. I suspect that there’s a bigger heart beating within Awake than throbbed in Lone Star, and which will appeal to viewers who are willing to go with its colorful emotions.
And I do mean color. The two worlds that Isaacs’ Michael Britten inhabits are color-coded — tinted differently — to help us know where he is; he himself uses rubber bands around his wrist, a green one when he’s with Rex, and a red one when with his wife. He sees two therapists, one in each world, who offer conflicting advice. (Now that’s my idea of a nightmare.) One is played by a warm, reassuring Cherry Jones, who’s intrigued and willing to buy into Michael’s two-world explanation. The other is played by B.D. Wong, who thinks Michael should just wake up and smell the coffee: “This is a coping mechanism,” he tells his patient, “relieving you of the obligation of dealing with [your loved ones'] death.”
Does this sound maudlin? Well, it frequently is. Lots of shots of Britten looking longingly at his wife or son; many scenes exploring ongoing grief. It helps enormously to have Isaacs playing the lead. This actor knows how to convey a gravity that contrasts well with the series’ airy concept, but he avoids becoming heavy and morose. You believe him both as a tough cop who has a nice rapport with his hard-boiled partner in one existence (Steve Harris), and who snaps orders at his other-world new partner (Wilmer Valderrama at his most halting). And most of all, he’s sympathetic as both a fond father (to Dylan Minnette’s Rex) and a loving husband (as who would not be, married to Terriers‘ husky-voiced Laura Allen?). But one thing I liked most about Awake is that, whatever its potential flaws or traps may be, it is — and I’m going to emphasize this, because the premise could lead you into thinking it — it is not depressing, downbeat, “gritty,” or cynical. It is, instead, pure-hearted and in many ways uplifting, and that’s the kind of TV that I’d rather champion these days.
Awake avoids the most obvious pitfall of its premise: It doesn’t devolve into a high-schooler-student writing-class short-story punchline: “… and then I woke up!” I can’t say that Awake really accomplishes what it intends to do stylistically, which is to combine the romance genre with the police procedural. NBC sent out four episodes to critics, and I felt as though I could see some of the seams showing, as Killen and showrunner Howard Gordon (Homeland; 24) worked out the rules of the series’ concept and negotiated the balance between Britten’s inner quandary and the crime-of-the-week plot. I’ll say without spoiling anything that next week’s episode brings in an element of surprise that might eventually send Awake into a deeper-mythology direction, and my immediate reaction to this was a gut feeling: Please don’t go down that route!
I had an another gut reaction as well: If I had to guess, I’d say Awake is going to attract a fervent following — it has the kind of emotional resonance that a lot of people like to experience through their television sets, feelings and thoughts about love, death, guilt, marriage, and parenthood, with the added element of spirituality. For what is Britten’s experience of a dual life if not a metaphor for the way some people yearn to live different lives with those closest to them, to get a chance to say and do the things they would have, if they’d only known how things will turn out?
At its weakest, Awake will develop into a mawkish melodrama such as Medium, which nonetheless had a strongly identifying audience. If it remains something more sophisticated and nuanced, it could appeal to a wider viewership as well. In either case, I suspect Awake will last quite a bit longer than Kyle Killen’s previous series, either a cult or a mass phenomenon. It depends on how many people are willing to go with its premise and let the show get under their skin, into their dreams.