Review: Despite tricky concept, dual-reality drama thrives on emotion, not storytelling gimmicks
"Awake" is the best new show of the season.
It isn't perfect. The NBC drama, debuting tonight, will confuse and perhaps occasionally bore you. But despite the most complicated narrative since ABC's "Lost" kept skipping through time, "Awake" makes a fast, emotional connection that gives viewers an almost immediate stake in the lives of its compelling characters.
The basic setup is this: LAPD Det. Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) is in a horrible car accident with his wife and son. It breaks his life in two. In one reality, he wakes up to learn that his wife (Laura Allen) has died but that his son (Dylan Minnette) has lived. When he goes to sleep in that reality, he wakes up in another in which his son has died but his wife has lived.
Which one is real? Britten has no idea — but refuses to give up either one. Surrendering to either reality will mean losing one of the two people he loves most.
The show, executive produced by "Homeland" and "24"'s Howard Gordon and writer Kyle Killen, refuses in its early episodes to say which world is real — or if either is. Viewers immediately captivated by the concept won't want to lose either one.
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There are plenty of supporting characters on hand to make the case for each reality. Britten has two partners, one in each version of his world, played by Steve Harris and Wilder Valderrama. He also has two psychologists, played by B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones. Each tells him he's awake now, and dreaming when he imagines his other life.
Britten tells them both: "That's exactly what the other shrink said."
That moment, at the start of tonight's pilot, sets up Britten's dillemma beautifully. The pilot also makes a moving case for why Britten doesn't want to wake up. Not that he knows when he's really asleep.
The show works largely because the acting is uniformly excellent. And the writing usually lives up to the promise of Killen's ambitious concept. Everyone involved strives to make viewers feel grounded in each moment, even when we don't know whether it's really happening.
Killen previously produced Fox's duality-obsessed "Lone Star," about a con man living a double life in Texas. It failed to find an audience in part because many viewers refused to relate to a man in love with two women at once. Killen seems to go hard in the other direction with Britten, making his love for his family painfully palpable.
The endangered relative routine may sound a little played out. But this isn't the typical relative-taken-hostage-with-time-running-out scenario. (Though the show does have one of those — with a serious twist — in an upcoming episode).
Britten, wife Hannah and son Rex win our empathy by refusing to ask for it. Hannah and Rex mourn for each other, in their different realities, in sometimes confusing and upsettting ways — just like people do in real life. And Britten is as flawed a husband and father as he is a cop.
Britten's job could have easily been another amp-up-the-drama TV cliche. But after some bumpy transitions as we get used to the cuts between worlds, the show eventually weaves together his cop life and domestic life in a way that makes both more intriguing.
Britten's attempt to keep both his wife and son close is the show's overreaching arc, but it uses Britten's cases to offer self-contained stories from episode to episode. Those of us entranced by the overall mystery could easily have been annoyed by the distractions from it, so the show cleverly adds a new wrinkle: Britten discovers clues and hints in each reality that help him solve crimes in the other. And may help solve the overriding riddle.
The show is at its most confusing — and sometimes dull — when we're in the middle of these cases, wondering why we aren't getting to the central mystery of the show. But hold on, because maybe we are.
Britten's captain, played by "ER" vet Laura Innes, says something at the end of the second episode that suggests his professional life may have led to his personal tragedy. Taken at face value, it might also take viewers out of the show entirely. But I'm not taking anything on "Awake" at face value.
The big challenge for "Awake" is the same as that of many high-concept shows: Where can it go from the pilot? Plenty of places, it turns out. In the next three episodes, the show quickly and imaginatively raises the stakes by making Britten so good as solving crimes — thanks to his dual realities — that some wonder if he's also the one committing them.
He also encounters a killer fixated on the number two. For a detective with a double life, he seems like a dream villain. Or maybe just a dream.
"Awake" premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC. It is also available for viewing now on-demand and here.