The pilot for Awake is surprisingly well done for an NBC premiere, with plenty to like and more than enough to stoke your curiosity in an heavy hour-long drama format. The direction is powerful and emotionally relevant to all scenes, Jason Isaacs leads with true confidence, and the writing branches into a realm of possibilities ambitious for a pilot’s sake. Though as with Fox’s Touch, it’s hard to see a lot of concrete story arcs past a few solid episodes due to Awake’s hard-to-grasp premise. Whether it succeeds or not though, it’s clear that NBC is putting a lot of work into making Awake look and feel like this year’s surprise serial drama.
The high concept in Awake involves Michael Britten (Isaacs) coping with life after a car accident slices his perception into two realities: one where his wife died and one where his son died. It turns a traumatic experience upside itself, as this man is able to grieve for each loss yet miraculously loses neither. Great films are built on solid premises such as this, but this is TV we’re talking about. So Michael is of course a cop, because the only interesting lives people lead on the small screen take place around dead bodies and kidnapped children. The cop angle opens up a lot of fun threads but even so it feels manufactured to give the series a crutch to pull in more users. It also provides a flimsy, coincidence-based power for Michael to use for crime solving.
However, Michael’s personal life makes up for the predictable police scenarios. Delving into this circumstance with two different therapists, Michael explores his own conscious and subconscious processes while each therapist examines his “dreams” of wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette). Hannah, aware of Michael’s dreams of the other side, tries to move on with their lives by suggesting another child. Rex searches for his own ways to manage the pain, resulting in a revived euphemism for tennis, his mother’s favorite sport.
Through each reality, Michael reacts with subdued unease and a poised reluctance to move forward. Isaacs does a wonderful job of portraying the grieving father and husband, while also contemplating his situation. Both therapists have similar yet slightly different takes on Michael’s experiences, convincing him of each world’s reality while also exploring his emotions. Therapist interactions have been used many times to bring deep feelings to light, and they work the same way here. It’s another easy move, but it helps us identify as an audience with Michael and his struggles.
The biggest problem with Awake though is that it doesn’t seem able to last longer than one season. You can’t reconcile the two worlds, nor will characters in one be able to interact perfectly with others. There are a lot of things that can be done, but this flaw may be fatal enough to be the undoing of Awake. Only time will really tell, but for the pilot’s sake we can say that it’s engaging enough to keep an eye on.