Review by C.J. Bunce
Not five minutes into the pilot for NBC’s new crime drama/thriller Awake–you are wrenched into the dilemma suffered by the series’ star, L.A. Detective Michael Britten, played by British actor Jason Isaacs (Case Histories, Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, DragonHeart, Armageddon, Event Horizon). Britten wrecked his car with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, The 4400, House, M.D.) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette), and one of them died. In his sleep, he lives the reverse of the life he lives while awake–in one reality his son lived, and the other his wife lived. But which is reality? “This is not a dream,” each psychiatrist tells him, one in his dream state, the other while awake.
As the title indicates, Detective Britten is perpetually awake. And the show moves forward with the vibe that he never gets any sleep, not letting up through the pilot’s last scene. And “wrenched” is the right verb, because as cool as the concept is, the weight of the real-life drama nags at you.
He wears a different colored rubber band to remember which reality he is in. Has he selected the true reality? Will he know? Does he even want to find out?
Halfway through the pilot, Britten’s predicament becomes even trickier. A clue in one reality–611 Waverly–appears to cross into the other reality. Can he follow the clue in one reality to help solve the crime in the other? Are details in his dreams manifesting themselves in his reality, or vice versa? The psychiatrists are clever (Dr. John Lee played by BD Wong (Jurassic Park, Law and Order: SVU, The X-Files), and Dr. Judith Evans played by Cherry Jones (The Village, Signs, 24), finding ways to prove the other’s advice is wrong. One psychiatrist is gentle, the other is tough. Is all of this his brain’s way of dealing with loss?
We meet two detectives, one, Britten’s long-time partner, direct and confident Det. Isaiah Freeman, played by Steve Harris (Minority Report, Bringing Down the House), the other, less confident but cool rookie Det. Efrem Vega, played by Wilmer Valderrama (Fez from That ’70s Show).
Along with the ongoing question of what really happened to Britten, not one but two crime dramas must be sleuthed out by the end of the hour. Which murder came first? The cab driver? The kidnapped girl? Has his subconscious turned his crisis in real life into a case he must solve in his dreams? As soon as he decides which is dead, will that person stop appearing in his dreams?
The maneuvering from each reality is seemless and unrelenting. The weaving of the two realities is well constructed. Along with the lead role, Isaacs also serves as producer on the series.
Isaacs as the tormented father/husband/cop is the highlight of the new series, along with the supporting roles of the detectives played by Harris and Valderrama. Ultimately the pilot plunges us into Britten’s world too quickly and feels a bit off. The psychological and almost supernatural nature of the plot lends itself to comparison to the Life on Mars TV series. But will Awake be a success like the British version or short-lived like the U.S. version? If the story stays on-track this could work as an ongoing must-see, but if not it risks being another show with a gimmick like Christian Slater’s My Own Worst Enemy. The chemistry between Isaacs and Allen as husband and wife is not quite there yet, which is to be expected for a pilot, but it may have to do with the 11 year age difference of the actors which is strangely obvious. The storytelling device of the dueling psychiatrists is a bit convenient, but in the introductory scene it works nicely. The pilot is wrapped up neatly–maybe too neatly. That said, Britten says if the price of not letting go of one of his family members is no sleep and his very sanity, then so be it. Knowing that, the challenge will be where the series’ writers can take the first season.
Awake premieres on NBC March 1.