NBC's Awake has been getting rave reviews from critics, and deservedly so. It's a smart police procedural with a startling metaphysical mystery looming behind. The show balances Law-&-Order-style crime drama with Lost-style questions about just what is happening to Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) following the car crash that may have claimed the life of either his wife or his son. Despite its warm reception in the critical community, many are convinced that NBC will cancel Awake at the end of its first season due to lackluster ratings. So, in honor of a great show with an uncertain future, we present this list of some of our favorite surreal police dramas from past years:
5. Life on Mars (BBC)
Awake owes a large debt to this 2006 BBC serial about a cop wheo is hit by a car and awakens to find that he may have traveled 33 years into the past. The show refuses to answer the central question about whether its protagonist has actually traveled through time, is dreaming everything in a coma, or is in some kind of afterlife. The subsequent series Ashes to Ashes eventually answered this question at the end of its run.
4. The Singing Detective (BBC)
Another BBC production, this 1986 miniseries won multiple accolades for its depiction of a writer hospitalized for chronic psoriatic arthritis – a condition from which the show's author, Dennis Potter, actually suffered. During his stay in hospital, Philip Marlow writes a novel about a detective who sings at a dance hall and solves mysteries of international intrigue. The events of the novel mix with flashbacks from Marlow's own life, until fictional characters are having conversations with memories and with Marlow himself. The series was adapted into an excellent 2003 film starring Robert Downey Jr.
3. Picket Fences (CBS)
This bizarre mid-'90s drama ran for four years and inspired a dedicated fan following. It concerns the town of Rome, Wisconsin, where many unusual events occur on a daily basis. Tom Skerrit plays Sheriff Jimmy Brock, who must deal with issues as diverse as abortion, homophobia, LGBT adoption, transsexuality, racism, religion, polygamy, rape, cryonics, the Holocaust, shoe fetishism, masturbation, spontaneous human combustion, and constitutional rights. The show used its ensemble cast to examine and evaluate American morality at the end of the Twentieth Century, and did so in a way that pleased viewers and critics alike, winning fourteen Emmy Awards during its run.
2. Dexter (Showtime)
Dexter is a huge hit, heading into its seventh season with great ratings and awards too numerous to list; but you wouldn't have suspected that when it first debuted in 2006. The story of a blood spatter pattern analyst in the Miami Metro Police Department who is also a serial killer – but struggles to only kill bad people? It sounds like a premise that would never work, but the show's fantastic cast and extremely clever writers make the impossible seem easy. Once you accept the frankly ridiculous conceit at the show's heart, Dexter gives you every reason to keep watching. Among them: Michael C. Hall's nuanced performance as the protagonist, Jennifer Carpenter's amazing tough-yet-vulnerable portrayal of his sister, and John Lithgow as fellow serial killer Arthur Mitchell.
1. Twin Peaks (ABC)
This is the deranged grandaddy of them all. With a rabid fan-base that persists to this day, Twin Peaks is still one of the most utterly unique things to have ever appeared on screen – any screen, large or small. David Lynch and Mark Frost somehow created a mystery that was part procedural, part high-school romance, part soap opera, part supernatural horror film, part abstract art, part philosophical examination of the self, part chronicle of domestic abuse, part quirky comedy, and part metaphor for the soul's struggle against chaos. As Agent Dale Cooper puts it: “All things considered, being shot is not as bad as I always thought it might be, as long as you can keep the fear from your mind. But I guess you can say that about almost anything in life: it's not so bad, as long as you can keep the fear from your mind.”