In many ways, Awake is an even riskier bet for NBC than the showtune-happy Smash. The show follows a detective whose reality has splintered following a fatal car accident: one day, he wakes up to comfort his grieving wife because their son has died; in the next, he's a widower living with his son who survived. During one of his mandated therapy sessions, he lays it out: One of these existences might not be real — but he'd rather go on living in both.
More ambitious and certainly more challenging than most network dramas, Awake is not nearly as complicated as traversing through Inception, a comparison some critics have already made. Instead, think of it as a cop drama with a twist, albeit a very ambitious twist — while Detective Britten (Jason Isaacs) is trying to be a husband one day and a father the next, he's also carrying on with his day job catching bad guys. Each week, he'll have a case to solve, and details or clues from one realm will help him in the other.
The first hour, directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night), has been deftly — and beautifully — organized into two very separate realities. Time with his wife (Laura Allen) is warm, golden, sun-kissed, while days with his son (Dylan Minnette) are cooler and bluer. Britten also sees different therapists (B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones) and has different job partners (Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama), though both are tasked in some way with keeping an eye on him. Four episodes in, none of the narrative is particularly difficult to follow.
More problematic is the NBC landscape: Awake is stuck in a tough timeslot — Thursdays at 10, following the network's low-rated comedy lineup and against established dramas The Mentalist on CBS and Private Practice on ABC. We say, let the network worry about all that. Here's your six-point cheat sheet, straight from creator-executive producer Kyle Killen (Lone Star):
Somber premise, not so somber drama. Awake picks up well after the Britten family car crash. When we meet Britten, he's adjusted well to living a dual life — he even wears different colored rubber bands to help keep his realities separate. In other words, real or not, Britten still has both his wife and son in his life, and that's a gift he wants to take advantage of. "It isn't a show that's relentlessly about grief because, frankly, whether it's healthy or not, he's not a person who is grieving," Killen says. "As far as he's concerned, he has everyone."
Which reality is real? Who cares? Britten doesn't. And if you get hung up on trying to suss out the dream world, you'll be waiting awhile. Killen is less interested in helping you figure out which reality is the real deal than they are in seeing the effect living a double life has on Britten. "It's not really a question the show is trying to answer because it's actually a question the character is trying to avoid the answer to," Killen says. "To us, what's more interesting is [what happens when] you stake your claim with wanting to live literally in two different worlds that are going in two different directions. The drama and conflict comes from seeing a person who is trying to live in two diverging universes." And at some point, the mental upkeep of Britten's denial will take its toll, i.e. in an upcoming episode, he hallucinates quality time with a penguin. "It must be extraordinarily difficult to construct an entire alternate universe," Killen says. "Keeping all the details straight, keeping it separate, protecting yourself from knowing which is real. Over time, there are probably consequences to that. So, in one episode, you spend some time with a penguin on one of your cases."
The question you should be asking is: What's behind the car crash? That's a mystery that will be answered by season's end. Britten's boss (Laura Innes), who early on will be revealed as having a hidden agenda, could have something to do with it.
There will be lots of crime-solving. Make no mistake: This is a case-of-the-week show (that happens to have a top-tier cast and a more-complex-than-usual premise.) Britten's workload makes up the meat of every episode. The spin is that details in one reality — something as innocuous as a packing slip or a parking spot — can help crack cases in the other. He'll figure this trick out sooner rather than later, and then he'll begin asking himself all the questions that are probably occurring to you right now. "What can he do? What can't he do? Is it pre-crime? Are you seeing the future in one world? Those are things that Britten explores," Killen says.
You'll want to root for Britten... to not wake up. Probably. The point is, he's a man you'll empathize with. Killen's last series Lone Star lasted just two episodes, and one of Killen's theories about why viewers rejected it is that it was, semi-similarly, about a bigamous grifter leading two lives. Awake's Britten is no such morally ambiguous character picking between wives. "Britten's a guy who's really struggling to hold on to his wife and his son, which is something I think we can empathize with," Killen says. Series star Jason Isaacs puts it another way: "The only reason I wanted to do this show is that it's completely universal. Although he has a unique situation, through that prism, we can explore what it's like to be a father, what it's like to be a husband, what it's like to reboot a marriage if you didn't get it right the first time..."
P.S. Britten is not dead nor in a coma. At least, that's what we've come to believe after speaking to both Killen and executive producer Howard Gordon (24, Homeland), who both seemed to shoot down the theory that it's all a dream. "I understand there's a value to a twist on a twist, but I also feel like there's a value to seeing [the premise] to the end and finding out emotionally what it would mean to literally discover that there wasn't a way out of the box, that the rules are exactly as they laid out in the beginning," Killen said. And those rules are that Britten lives in two different worlds, one of which is all in his head. That's one interpretation anyway...
Got it? Good. Now check out the first seven minutes of Awake and watch tonight's premiere at 10/9c on NBC: