There’s a sense of trepidation going into the pilot for Awake. “ANOTHER cop show on TV? And there’s a weird mystery behind it?” your embittered TV viewer might say in scorn. But Awake stands out from the many murder-of-the-week dramas not just because of its central conceit, but also in the way it carries regular cop show elements.
The plot is pretty easily spelled out in the show’s promos: L.A. detective Michael Britten (Jason Issacs), his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) get in a car accident. We’re not really shown the details of the accident other than the terrified reactions of the Brittens as the car goes out of control. The accident is the vantage point in Michael’s life, splitting him off into two separate realities. In one, Hannah survived the crash but Rex is dead. In the other reality, it’s the opposite.
This dual-worlds trick has the potential to get confusing real fast, but creator Kyle Killen (of the much-lauded but quickly canned Lone Star), who also wrote the pilot episode, has devised several tricks to keep things clear. In the world with Hannah, Michael wears a red rubber band on one wrist, is partnered with a younger detective, Efram Vega (Wilmer Vanderrama) and, as recommended by the LAPD, is seeing the somewhat aggressive psychologist Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong). In the Hannah-less world, he wears a green rubber band, is still paired with his longtime partner Isaiah Freeman (Steve Harris) and sees the more caring Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones). Additionally, director David Slade shoots the two worlds in different tones: the one with Hannah bright and light-filled, the one with Rex more subtle and muted. Marks like that help keep the less-attentive viewer on track.
This may be “just” a pilot, but everyone brings their A-game here. Issacs—a British actor best known to Americans as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films—is the biggest standout. He makes Britten feel not only like a weathered, beaten detective, but a man haunted by grief and the unbearable choice he finds himself confronted with: choosing whether to let his wife slip away or his son. Issacs makes sure we see Britten as the beaten-down man that he is, somehow embodying the shoes of every iconic TV gumshoe before him, yet making him seem contemporary as anything.
The rest of the case is pretty good too, particularly Wong (aka Dr. Haung from Law & Order: SVU, which he jumped ship from to join this show) and Jones as the therapists. Their approaches to Michael—both different, yet firmly rooted in the conceit that their patient is dreaming the respective other world—contrast just enough to create tension, but you can still see they both believe in the same cause.
Vanderrama makes you forget all about that foreign exchange student from That 70s’ Show instantly. In his hands, the detective Vega is just that—a detective, no-nonsense, no frills, just a guy working his beat. Not much is revealed here, but hey, it is just a pilot. I’m sure we’ll see more revealed in the future. As for Britten’s other partner, Freeman, Steve Harris plays him with just as much weariness as Issacs plays Britten. Their banter isn’t so much banter as the sort of easy talking you do with a guy you not only work with but are friends with too. Freeman’s line, “Come on, you know I’ve had a cold since the Clinton Administration,” in response to Michael asking if he smells something, comes to mind.
The cop show elements in this episode–a killer of cabbies with a disguise penchant in the Hannah world, a missing child in the Rex world–jell really well with the show’s other elements. In both cases, we get a sense that Michael is an experienced detective, no matter who he’s partnered with and the sheer nature of the cases themselves felt appropriate in their respective settings. The way both cases are resolved is arresting, and I never lost track of the developments in either case. A key point–one that I think the show will emphasize as the series goes on–is that the same number has a huge meaning in both cases, and is what enables Michael to solve them both, further demonstrating his prowess.
Of Britten’s family, I really got a better sense of who Hannah was then I did Rex. In part, that’s because more time is really spent exploring the connection between Hannah and Michael, and Allen does a suburb job giving us a glimpse at who she is and it’s mesmerizing. Don’t get me wrong, Minnette does a good job as Rex—his breakdown at winning a tennis match, a sport his mom excelled at, is heartrending—but I don’t remember that much of him otherwise. Hopefully, future episodes will correct this imbalance.
There’s actually one more character I forgot to mention and that’s Tara (Michaela McManus), Rex’s tennis coach, who the show’s promotional materials (and Wikipedia page) reveal will become the object of Michael’s attraction. While I did find Tara an enjoyable character, this future infatuation could go the route of many despised TV romances of old, but I have enough faith in McManus’ gutsy, funny portrayal for that fear to be allayed.
So overall, this pilot episode was a very strong start to a promising series. Awake (aside from the stellar and superb Community, which comes back March 15) will now make me tune in to NBC every Thursday night for as long as it’s on the air. I’m a sucker for good alternate realities, and that, coupled with the comforting beat of a cop show and a remarkable lead performance from Isaacs, is something I think TV viewers will love.
Y’know what? I’m gonna go right ahead and link you to the pilot on Hulu. Go ahead and watch it. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.