daniel ferrer looks at the new NBC drama …
Awake follows police detective Mark Britten (Harry Potter‘s Jason Isaacs, matching Hugh Laurie for TV’s most convincing yank) after surviving a fatal car accident that took the life of a loved one. The hook is that Mark lives on in two realities: one in which his son was killed in the accident, and the other in which his wife was the victim. Britten’s sole confidants are two police therapists (one for each parallel universe) who try to convince him of their own reality in their mandated sessions.
Let’s ignore the logical chasms in the premise and consider the possibility that, at face value, this could turn out to be a mildly entertaining psychological thriller. At least that’s what the publicity says. Sure, its simplicity is its main draw, but while it manages to be more accessible than convoluted shows like Lost, Awake is at risk of being an idea not fully formed. What kind of therapist thinks it’s okay for a detective who can’t discern reality to remain on the force? Also, how hard is it to figure out which of these worlds is a dream? All that takes is a head count of talking dogs and giant floating women and you can pretty much ballpark it from there. I’d be game for Awake if it was accompanied by a Rod Serling voice-over or a mail-order form for X-ray specs, but a hokey sci-fi premise like this can’t have much shelf life as an ongoing series. I’m kind of hoping they’ll skip the foreplay and get to the part where we find out that both son and wife are alive and it’s Britten who died in that accident (blame Shyamalan).
Okay, before your mind is made up, I should probably stop to tell you that Awake is a damn good show. It’s honestly the best I’ve reviewed this year. Kudos to creator Ryan Killen for cutting right through all the existential bells and whistles that make this show buzz and cutting to the core of what makes it work. By not getting wrapped up in its own gimmick, the show has enough space to step back from its otherworldly plot and focus what makes it a human experience.
The show is not about dreams or heavy-handed attempts at exploring “the mind” — it’s about loss. Isaacs and Killen work together deftly to create a character who can’t move on. At around the halfway mark, it becomes apparent that the conflict isn’t about Mark’s inability to distinguish reality but his refusal to accept it. He’s happy, in a sick sort of way, to live in both worlds if it means his family is still around in one form or another.
It’s also about the uncomfortably intimate nature of psychotherapy. The scenes with Mark’s therapists are some my favorite. It’s both intellectually and emotionally satisfying to watch the shrinks goad Mark towards their reality and see his understandably guarded response. Mark knows all their tricks because he uses them to catch rapists and killers. To find himself in their position is both nerve-wracking and alienating, and it translates nicely under the direction of David Slade.
Speaking of Slade, I really hope he sticks with this show. His attention to detail ties the two worlds together nicely. Props appear in one world and are neatly matched in the other. The narrative is pulled together by a sharp eye for color. It’s the kind of stuff usually saved for the more auteur-friendly cable and HBO programming and often the first to be overlooked in primetime.
Aside from an intriguing but unnecessary b-plot that pushes the show into procedural territory, Awake premiers strong and hopefully has the chops to follow through. And if it doesn’t, I‘ll at least rest easy knowing someone tried to go for genuinely good storytelling in favor of stilted ambition.