Rarely do I encounter TV shows that simply floor me. I have seen some amazing and not-so-amazing television, but I don’t recall the last time when I was riveted with a television show to the point where I was speechless at the end.
Awake, however, is one of those shows.
Detective Michael Britten (Jason Issacs), his wife Hannah (Laura Allen), and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) suffered a severe car accident. Following the accident, Britten found himself in two separate worlds: one where his wife died but his only son lived, and one where his son died but his beloved wife survives. When he falls asleep in one world, he awakes in the other. Here’s the rub: Britten can’t tell which one is the waking world and which is the dream world.
This is the particular conceit that most of the hour-long drama falls. Deciding which world is “real” means declaring the other one “unreal.” But as anyone who has lost a close loved one knows, how can you ever possibly give up a world where he or she still exists? Britten’s perfect world is the one where the two realities collide, but that is one option that he can’t have. He can’t even tell his loved ones about his dreams because “it’s torture” to his wife/son who can’t experience the same.
To deal with the consequences of the accident, the department sends Britten to therapy for a full psychological evaluation under the care of Dr. John Lee (B.D. Wong) in his wife’s world and Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones) in his son’s. Both psychiatrists attempt to convince Britten that the other world is the dream, and both present fairly convincing evidence.
Britten returns to his detective work to regain some sense of normalcy, but crime solving becomes complicated. Clues bleed through from the other world. The staff at the department shifts ever-so-slightly. Britten catches the bad guy in both worlds, but leaves everyone wondering whether he should be carrying a badge in the first place.
This show is truly a riveting hour of television. As it started, I began to take notes for the purpose of writing this review, but I neglected to write anything down after the first 7 minutes since I was already captivated. Britten’s final monologue as he sat on the couch in the doctor’s office was as brilliant as it was intense. The entire cast is extremely likable (which is rare) – his partners, his doctors, and, of course, his family. Like Britten himself, you want everyone to be real. But somewhere in the back of your mind, you know half of them aren’t. And that’s the inherent tragedy.
David Slade was at the directorial helm in this pilot episode, and I think he played it on so many levels. Britten wears a colored rubber band to remind him which world he’s in (red for his wife, green for his son), and the lighting noticably changes to represent a warmer tone and a cooler tone, respectively, when inhabiting his wife’s and his son’s worlds. Hannah attempts to deal with her son’s death by trying to be “normal” and overly loving (hence the warmer red-orange tones), whereas Rex’s grief over his mother makes him unable to connect with his father (the colder, blue-green tones.)
I admit, there’s isn’t a lot of indication of where this show is going from here. Logically, the police work would be dialed up a little bit more in future episodes in order to play more episodically, but it’s the raw emotion and psychological tension that has us on the edge of our seats. As such, sustainability is a concern, leading me to believe this is one where the British TV model might serve better: have a limited run of great episodes instead of a decent run of waning mediocrity. But these decisions aren’t mine to make.
In any case, no matter how long (or short) it’s run ends up being, I’ve already set the season pass. That I know is real.
The series premiere of Awake is tomorrow night (Thursday, 3/1) at 10:00 PM on NBC.