(NBC) There's a world where Awake is a hit, and there's one where it's canceled. Much like the series' protagonist, the universe is trying to make up its mind which world is real.
Since Awake debuted on March 1st, television review sites have been filled with arguments over whether the show is brilliant, or whether it's too cerebral to make a lasting connection with audiences. Not many seem to doubt that Awake has great writing, a strong cast, and a unique and fascinating premise; the question is: are those things enough to sustain the interest of a viewing public fed on a diet of crime-of-the-week and “reality” melodrama?
Awake's plot is certainly intriguing. It concerns the confusing mental state inhabited by Police Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter, Brotherhood), who has survived a car crash, the cause of which is shrouded in hazy memories. At first, it appears that the crash has claimed the life of Britten's son Rex, played by Dylan Minnette who, interestingly, also played Jack's son in the very similar “sideways timeline” subplot in season six of Lost. Britten and his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, The 4400, Grey's Anatomy) bury Rex and try to move on; however, when Britten goes to sleep each evening, he awakes in a world where Rex is alive and it was Hannah who died that terrible night.
Britten returns to work but is forced to see an occupational therapist (in both worlds). Dr. John Lee (B.D. Wong, Law & Order: SVU) tells him that he is manifesting the alternate world as a coping mechanism to deal with his son's death. Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones, 24) tells him the same thing, but in reference to the loss of his wife. Both doctors insist that their world is real and try to convince Britten that the other is only a vivid and persistent dream. Britten, for his part, is both unwilling and unable to choose between the two.
Britten wears a different-colored rubber band on his wrist in each reality to remind himself who is alive and who isn't. Also, the world where Rex is alive is shot in cool tones, while Hannah's reality is shot in warm ones. Britten works a different case in each world, but as the premiere episode progresses, it becomes clear that the two cases have eerie similarities.
What's interesting about the show is that, by the time the first episode starts, Britten's dilemma is already in place. Where other shows would spend multiple episodes slowly revealing the strange situation, Awake presents it in full during the first few minutes. This suggests confident storytelling and promises that the writers have enough tricks up their sleeves to keep the premise interesting long after it's been revealed.
Since Lost ended, many shows have tried to be its spiritual successor — The Event, FlashForward, Terra Nova, The River — but none have quite succeeded in achieving what Lost did. Even hardcore fans of Lost will usually admit that the show had its drawbacks, but that didn't matter because it touched something deep in our heads that few other things can; it provided that little thrill of crazed mystery that's as rare and precious to many of us as the odor of a certain flower that only grows deep in an unmapped mountain valley somewhere far away. Awake probably comes closer than any of the other contenders to hitting that mark. Essentially, it sets up a metaphysical mystery, and does so with care and precision.
True, Awake — judging by its pilot episode — seems to function within the limits of a cop/family drama, whereas the appeal of Lost was that it seemed limitless. However, these parameters are not necessarily a bad thing. Nowhere is it written that a story set in the cop/family genre can't be as daring and original as one set in the sci-fi/fantasy/adventure genre. It will all depend on what the writers decide to do with what they've got.
What they've got, at the moment, is a well-constructed and perfectly balanced enigma. A lot of thought clearly went into crafting this scenario, not least of which was the question: What would a man, who had to choose between his sanity and keeping both of his loved ones alive, actually do? The answer Britten provides at the end of the series premiere is a satisfying and realistic one. It's also one that leaves the door open for all kinds of developments in future episodes.
The show is helped immeasurably by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek's excellent score. The music is subdued, but it hums with suppressed tension. It never draws focus from what's happening onscreen, but it's distinctive enough to stick in the mind as an elemental part of the story's power.
Also memorable is Allen's performance as Hannah. Rather than play her as a typical grieving mother, Allen gives her an almost cheerful determination to cope. It's off-putting at first, until it becomes clear that Hannah may be rushing ahead with life in order to avoid the pain of her loss. This lends the character a depth that no amount of hysterics could have accomplished.
This is a subtle drama filled with small details and an emotional resonance that creeps in like the sound of a finger tracing the edge of a glass. There's a chance that it's too subtle to capture the attention of mainstream viewers, but that remains to be seen. Currently, Awake is balanced just as perfectly between two extremes as is the life of its main character. What can we do to help tip it into the world where it becomes a genuine phenomenon? Watch the premiere and then tell someone else to watch it. Awake is walking a thin line between success and oblivion; for those of us who love mystery and high-concept suspense, the choice — unlike Britten's — is clear.
For Fans Of: Lost, Life on Mars, Dexter, Law & Order, Quantum Leap
Why We Like It: keeps us guessing without playing games, takes its wild premise seriously, doesn't follow traditional narrative paths