Awake: Pilot

Let’s take a look at NBC’s much-heralded new series Awake, shall we?

In the opening moments, a car plunges off an embankment and rolls down a hill. The driver, Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), is banged up but not seriously injured; his passengers, wife Hannah and teenaged son Max, aren’t as lucky.

When next we see Britten, he’s meeting with psychiatrist Dr. Lee, who is helping him work through the trauma of his son’s death. Britten’s higher-ups have concerns about his mental state, so in addition to the mandatory psych evaluations, they’ve assigned him a brand-new partner, Vega (Wilmer Valderrama), who’s been instructed to report back on his behavior in the field. Vega and Britten investigate the murder of a cab driver, who was shot through his windshield on a busy street with plenty of witnesses.

Dr. Lee, by the way, is played by B.D. Wong, who brings his patented aura of no-nonsense unruffled benevolence to the role. I’m always happy to see Wong, and I appreciate the calm, mellow vibe surrounding him, but just once I’d like to see him cast against type as a crazed murderer, or a lawless hooligan, or a decadent party animal.

Britten returns home to Hannah, who is redecorating their house in an attempt to move on from Max’s death. She’s also mulling over the possibility of attending grad school in Oregon. The scenes with Hannah are, unfortunately, far and away the draggiest part of this episode. As Hannah, Laura Allen is a fine actress, but physically, she’s an odd choice for the role. She has a pronounced girlish quality to her, particularly in regard to her high-pitched speaking voice, that seems jarring for the part of a grieving mother of a teenaged boy. And she seems too damned young to be married to Lucius Malfoy.

Britten goes to sleep… and wakes up in an alternate reality, in which Hannah died and Max survived the accident. In the wake of Hannah’s death, father and son have a strained but cordial relationship. Max is played by Dylan Minnette, who was Jack’s son in the alternate timeline in Lost’s final season, so, y’know, the kid’s already had some valuable experience playing people who might not actually exist. The scenes with Max are also maybe a little draggy, but frankly, I’m just so impressed and relieved to see a non-obnoxious, non-douchebaggy teenaged-boy character on television that I’m willing to give them a little latitude.

Apparently there’s no Detective Vega in this reality: Britten is still paired up with his original partner, Detective Freeman (Steve Harris). Freeman and Britten investigate a brutal home invasion, in which a husband and wife were slaughtered and their young daughter was kidnapped. Britten also has a different shrink in this reality: Dr. Evans (24’s Cherry Jones). Both Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans believe Britten’s mind created an alternate reality to escape the trauma of having lost a loved one. Problem is, Britten has no idea which reality is real and which exists only in a dream state. To differentiate between the two, he wears a red rubber band around his wrist in the reality where his wife is alive, and a green rubber band in the one where his son survived.

Red reality: A second cab driver is murdered in exactly the same manner as the first. The killer wore a wig, which he ditched in a nearby dumpster; a single natural red hair is gleaned from it.

Green reality: Britten and Freeman discover the home invader/kidnapper parked his trailer just prior to the killings in the Waverly parking structure, space 611…

…which triggers a memory in Britten. In the red reality, the first cabbie was murdered in front of a building at 611 Waverly. Okay, see, that’s interesting. That’s a cool twist. The very best parts of Awake all involve the twin unrelated-yet-mysteriously-linked investigations. That clues from each investigation cross over into the other reality… yeah, that’s a clever touch, and it gives this series a jolt of needed fuel.

Red reality: Acting upon the clue he received in the green reality, Britten, with Vega in tow, returns to 611 Waverly, where he realizes an eyewitness to the first cabbie’s murder, who claimed to have seen the killing from his apartment window, lied about his version of events. When he tries to interrogate the witness again, the witness pulls a gun on him. Vega shoots the witness, who turns out to be the red-haired killer of the two cab drivers.

Green reality: Britten and Freeman find the kidnapper’s trailer. When Britten tries to smuggle the kidnapped girl to safety, the kidnapper -- the same red-haired man who murdered the two cabbies in the other reality -- attacks him. Freeman shoots and kills the man to save Britten.

In both realities, Britten insists to Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans, that, while he tested positive for elevated blood alcohol levels after the car accident, he hadn’t had anything to drink that night. He can’t remember the events leading up to the accident; both shrinks think his opposing realities might be his subconscious way of avoiding facing responsibility for causing the tragedy. Dr. Lee is full of dire warnings about what might happen if he continues to try to live in both realities, but Britten, relieved at having some way of keeping both his wife and son are alive, isn’t terribly concerned about this.

A promising start. Slow in places, but it’s anchored by a good performance from Isaacs, and the premise alone is innovative enough to sustain interest for at least a few episodes. Let’s see where they take it from here.


averys said…
And she seems too damned young to be married to Lucius Malfoy.

:D Funny that you mention that; while watching, I actually thought she could have made a pretty great Narcissa with that fine features and blond hair. (IMO, Helen McCrory as Narcissa was a massive miscast.)

Hopefully, this show's overall plot will move at a decent pace, and it won't stick to the case-of-the-week format too much (like, say, Alcatraz, which I got bored with in a few episodes).

The premise is indeed unusual, but I'm not sure if it will work for an entire season, not just a mini-series.

Also, I hope they won't use these for twists:
1. Britten is in a coma (and both his wife and son died).
2. Britten is in a coma (and both his wife and son survived).
Morgan Richter said…
Also, I hope they won't use these for twists:
1. Britten is in a coma (and both his wife and son died).
2. Britten is in a coma (and both his wife and son survived

Yes. I have those exact fears, too. Call it the Life On Mars syndrome. With Life On Mars, though it was really well-made, as soon as it became clear what was going on, the show lost a whole lot of momentum for me.

If they're careful, I think they could sustain the premise for a season, but if it's a success and gets picked up for further seasons, they'll need to find a new hook, because it can't go on indefinitely. It all depends on how good the writers are, I suppose. (Overall, I thought the writing for the pilot was pretty sharp, which is a good sign.)
vallikat said…
I was also afraid of the same 2 possible twists. Both possibilities just seem too obvious though so I hope they won't go with either one.

More and more often I see shows that I wonder how the premise can survive beyond one season and this is certainly one such show (another that I'm actively watching is Revenge and I have the same fears as well for Touch). I have to wonder if this is somehow done by design. Maybe the networks are starting to cater to our increasingly shortened attention spans. Just a thought.

Anyway, I found the show to be interesting enough to keep me watching for now. I had the same thoughts about Hannah but I think she'll grow on me in time. I also really liked BD Wong and Cherry Jones in their roles as the therapists.


What happens if something wakes him in the middle of the night?

What happens if he stays awake all night?

What happens if he decides to start dating again in green reality?
Patrick said…
Very excited about these recaps! I must defend the original Life on Mars with John Simm which was superb. The follow-up Ashes to Ashes didn't work, and the US version of Life on Mars seemed terrible (I only watched the first episode but read about the ending) but the British version was very well done.

Hopefully Awake will never explain things, or if they do then both realities are true.

I was wondering how he might use the 'other' day to his advantage. Say he was held prisoner by someone in the green reality. He could use his time free in the red reality to research his captor, study plans for the area he's a prisoner and so on. Lots of potential for making the most of the split realities.
Morgan Richter said…
Vallikat -- I think you're probably on to something with networks worrying about the short attention spans of viewers and thus coming up with these high-concept series ideas that don't seem at all sustainable over the long run. I would imagine that if Awake continues for more than a single season, the concept would have to be tweaked somehow to sustain interest.

What happens if he stays awake all night?
Good thought. I bet he'll try some experiments along those lines, or, as you also suggest, will have someone deliberately wake him in the middle of the night, just to see what happens. I thought the part where Cherry Jones has him read from the Constitution was a clever touch -- at the least, it's a sign the creators are trying to anticipate viewer questions/concerns.

Hopefully Awake will never explain things, or if they do then both realities are true.
Patrick, yeah, that's my hope too -- I'd like some clever solution where it turns out both realities are equally true (maybe there's been a split in the timeline, and for whatever reason, the same version of Jason Isaacs gets stuck in both timelines instead of having an alternate version in an alternate reality). I think any other solution -- he's in a coma! the green reality is the real one! the red reality is the real one! -- would be ultimately anticlimactic.

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