When a new show comes along that blows you away with its risk-taking originality, like NBC's haunting Awake (see my review of the pilot episode here), it's almost inevitable that one of the first impulses is to wonder if and how they can pull it off on a weekly basis. And few things are trickier than delivering that second act, or episode. (The previous drama by Awake's creator Kyle Killen, Fox's very short-lived Lone Star, was already showing serious signs of strain by its second hour, even if the ratings hadn't been in free fall from the get-go.)
Much of tonight's episode (10/9c) lives up to the tantalizing premise established in the pilot, as Michael Britten (the stoic, soulful Jason Isaacs) navigates between two realities following a terrible car accident: one in which he lives with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, fragile and beautiful), who grieves for their lost son; one in which he cares for his aloof son Max (Dylan Minnette), who can't get over losing his mother. In both worlds, Michael is a detective, and the cases he works on either side have a way of commenting on each other. Eerie and often very moving, Awake is a find for the discriminating viewer.
There's a lovely sequence in the opening of tonight's episode as dutiful dad Michael realizes something's missing in the way he does his son's laundry. Upon waking to his other life, pampered husband Michael gets a lesson on how it should be done. If that sort of detail can both charm and unsettle you, then Awake just might be your sort of show.
And Michael isn't merely caught between two worlds. He's bouncing between two very different therapists, who have diverging views on his waking-dream condition. The nurturing Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) exults over Michael's "direct access to the unconscious mind" and finds his ability to make these connections between realities "remarkable," while the confrontational Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong) challenges him, accusing Michael of not dealing honestly with his loss and warning, "The subconscious can be a highly unreliable witness." Still, this "gift" tends to help him pretty well on the job, though he often leaves his partners (Steve Harris in one reality, Wilmer Valderrama in the other) puzzled by his "intuitions" — "Just trying to see it from all the angles," he explains — and understandably skeptical about Michael's grasp on reality.
All of which makes for a provocative, if unorthodox, hour of entertainment, a truly offbeat blend of the fantastical and the procedural. But stay tuned to the very end of tonight's episode, and yet another mystifying curtain is drawn back that's likely to make you either more inclined to stay on this ride (if you're a fan of mythologies and conspiracies) or more willing to jump off and retreat to the safe haven of something like The Mentalist.
I'm not sure they needed to go there this quickly — why not let us live in this strange world a little longer before trying to upend it? But risk comes with the territory on a show like Awake, so for now, I'm still on board.
THE OSCAR GOES TO: Saving Face, though it's very likely you won't remember that fact, if you're the sort that zones out when the Oscars are being awarded in the under-the-radar categories of short films and documentaries. The winner of this year's prize for documentary short, HBO's 40-minute Saving Face (8:30/7:30c) commands attention from the very first scene, as a Pakistani woman looks wistfully at photos of her former beautiful self, and the camera pulls back to show her face cloaked to hide the disfiguring scars from an acid attack. It's unnerving to learn that this particularly horrific form of abuse is not uncommon in Pakistan, and it's just as disturbing to realize how hopeless life can be for the victims. One of the women introduced early on has been forced to move back in with her attackers, and her despair is difficult to watch.
But times are changing, and as the film follows the volunteer efforts of a Pakistani-born London doctor to treat these women through painstaking surgeries, Saving Face also addresses the bigger picture, as one of the victims takes her husband to court while the legislature weighs a bill that would enforce stricter punishment on those who commit these heinous crimes. Oscar did well by honoring this wrenching but uplifting film. Now it's your turn.
CHANNEL SURFING: NBC's comedies are all new, with Sean Hayes guesting on Parks and Recreation (8:30/7:30c) as an Indianapolis talk-show host who wants to interview Leslie. ... American Idol eliminates its first finalist from the Top 13 in the first results show (Fox, 8/7c), with the judges making the final call about whether to kick the bottom guy or the bottom girl. (My bet is the guy goes.) ... Fox's middling midseason The Finder airs its final Thursday episode (9/8c), as Walter tries to locate a missing high-schooler during a hurricane. If you're a fan, you'll next to be able to find The Finder on Fridays, when it returns April 6 to finish out its season and sweat out a long-shot renewal. ... Finch and Reese become unlikely babysitters on CBS's Person of Interest (9/8c) when The Machine zeroes in on a 6-month-old infant. ... The Shield's Catherine Dent is back on The Mentalist (CBS, 10/9) as FBI Agent Susan Darcy, who seeks Patrick Jane's help on a murder case, but he suspects she's just looking for more intel on Red John. Aren't we all?
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