Jason Isaacs as Detective Michael Britten in Awake (Image © NBC. All Rights Reserved)
NBC’s newest crime drama Awake debuts tonight with an intriguing pilot episode, and the most wildly original premise seen on television in years. British actor Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) stars as Detective Michael Britten, delivering a flawless American accent along with a nuanced and compelling dramatic performance as a police detective whose life has been recently shattered by a tragic car accident. The twist that makes Awake unlike any other cop show is that Detective Britten is living two entirely separate lives, one of which is almost certainly a dream. In one reality, the detective’s teenaged son was killed in the crash. But, as Britten confesses to his psychiatrist (played by Law & Order: SVU‘s B.D. Wong), when he closes his eyes to sleep, he immediately opens them to a different reality in which his son survived but his wife was killed, and where he tells the opposite tale to a different psychiatrist (this one played by Cherry Jones of 24).
Are you with me so far?
Laura Allen, Jason Isaacs, and Dylan Minnette in Awake (Image © NBC. All Rights Reserved.)
To complicate matters further, Britten has recently returned to work; in each reality, along with a different psychiatrist, he also has a different partner and a different case load. In one world, he tries desperately to find a kidnapped little girl, and in the other he searches for a frighteningly over-confident serial killer. But the clues he unearths while working on one case give him insight into the other, sometimes to the point where his respective partners (“Bird” Freeman, played by Steve Harris, and Efrem Vega, played by Wilmer Valderrama), question where he’s getting his knowledge. Britten waves it off as a hunch, or something he saw in a dream … but his partners are not convinced. It’s easy to see that this will be a recurring plot element, likely to place Britten himself under suspicion in future episodes.
Of course, the overwhelming question, and the central conflict of this show, is which reality is the dream? To Britten, they are both equally real. The time that he shares with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen), although darkened by the sadness she feels over the death of their son, is as precious to him as his moments with his grieving son Rex (movingly portrayed by Dylan Minnette of Saving Grace and Let Me In). Britten’s respective psychiatrists each try to convince him that only this version is the authentic one, even sending messages, through Britten, to trip each other up and force Britten to choose only one life as real – something he is completely unwilling to accept. And Britten, who has to deal with his own doubts about his sanity, as well as an inability to grieve completely for either of the loved ones he’s lost, has another problem which could drive anyone mad … the nature of his continually shifting reality means that he is constantly awake. It’s an almost impossibly complicated situation, and it is utterly enthralling.
Jason Isaacs in Awake (Image © NBC. All Rights Reserved.)
Awake is a show that’s difficult to categorize. The network is calling it a science fiction crime drama, but the premise is so wildly improbable that it seems more at home in the supernatural genre. It also has many elements of puzzle shows such as The Event and Lost, which will become even more evident in upcoming weeks. What is certain is that it has a strong cast, endearing characters, and a mystery that will have me coming back for more. It may be difficult for subsequent episodes to keep up the pace and complexity of the pilot, and it remains to be seen if the viewing audience of network television is willing to watch a show this dark and challenging, but after one episode I am happy to admit that I’m hooked. Let’s hope that NBC can keep up the quality, and that Awake can find an audience worthy of its ambition.