What makes for better television: a good crime procedural or an ambitious psychiatric drama? While creator Kyle Killen and show runner Howard Gordon actively wrestle with Awake’s wildly inventive yet flawed identity, we’re left to ponder that very question. And finding the audience Killen so greatly deserves, a job that’s been hoisted onto NBC’s as-of-late unenviable 10 p.m. slot on Thursday nights, ultimately depends on figuring it out.
Jason Isaacs plays Los Angeles detective Mike Britten, a survivor of a car crash that left either his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), or son, Rex (Dylan Minnette), dead. Yes, either. His emotional trauma led him to construct an elaborate alternate reality in his mind: in one world, he and Hannah mourn their son’s death; in the other, he struggles to raise Rex on his own. He doesn’t know which one is real, and, as he tells the shrinks he sees in each reality (B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones, respectively), he doesn’t want to find out. He’s delaying unconscionable pain, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge death for the sake of keeping his family alive, if not together.
This isn’t groundbreaking television. Killen plumbed the double-life trope in the short-lived Lone Star, while The Singing Detective and Life on Mars both explored delusions of identity through imaginatively bizarre conceits. Yet, Awake resonates more passionately, more immediately than its predecessors. Credit goes to David Slade’s dazzling direction on the show’s pilot for that accomplishment. From the first minute, it’s a gripping, engaging debut, a deft introduction to a premise that could’ve easily been mired in confusing narratives or expository bulk. It works, though, because Slade so carefully balances the show’s emotional and mechanical needs.
Britten, the pilot explains, is slowly “bleeding” from his real life into his dream world. While he’s investigating a murder in one world, case-cracking evidence appears serendipitously in the other. His realities exist in unison, offering a through line that not only justifies the show’s procedural backbone, but does so without sacrificing its unique empathetic appeal.
In subsequent episodes, though, the show fails to strike that balance again. By the end of the second episode, an odd conspiracy theory entirely unrelated to the story at hand is dangled in front of the audience. In the third and fourth, Britten’s family life exists entirely within the frame of his investigations, nudging Awake toward something closer to a gimmick about a superhuman cop. These missteps were seemingly made to nail down the formula Killen and Gordon are looking for, but they only underscore the difficulties the series still faces.
Luckily, there’s also hope ahead. From Issacs on down, the cast is utterly fantastic. The minds working behind the scenes, led by Killen and Gordon, seem to recognize the show’s potential as a crossover hit. And lest we forget, the pilot’s strength was neither accidental nor fleeting: Each subsequent episode has evocative moments that flirt with that early greatness, even if they’re not as riveting. (My favorite scene, when Britten nearly breaks down after thinking he lost access to one reality, is even the show’s highlight so far.)
As the plot winnows, figuring out how to keep Awake’s fire burning will be tantamount to its survival. People who liked Lost and The X-Files will crave more mysteries, more clues, and eventually, more answers from this show. People who prefer 24 will demand action, thrills, and tension. In its infancy, Awake will satisfy both of those groups. One will have to win out, though, if the show is going to find the consistency and stability it needs for long-term success.