March 03, 2012

TV: Awake (NBC, Thu 10)

Mike Britten (Jason Isaacs) is a cop who's recently survived an automobile accident, and now finds himself caught between two realities, switching between the two whenever he goes to sleep. In one reality, his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) has survived the crash and his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) has died; in the other reality, Rex has survived and Laura has died.

That sounds a bit complicated, but one of the marvelous things about Awake is how clearly it lays out that premise; the first five minutes are a model of storytelling. The show uses color to help differentiate the two realities -- there's a lot of cool green in the Hannah reality and warmer reds in the Rex reality.

In each universe, he's got a partner (Wilmer Valderrama, unrecognizable from That 70s Show without the accent and haircut, in the green reality, and Steve Harris in the red), and a therapist (B.D. Wong in green, Cherry Jones in red) who's trying to help him adjust not only to his bereavement, but to his conviction that both worlds are, in fact, real.

We can certainly understand why he wants to believe that -- if both are real, then at least he gets to keep both members of his family, even if in separate worlds -- just as we understand why both therapists are convinced that it's an elaborate coping mechanism.

But something real seems to be happening, because as Mike works on different police cases in the two worlds, there starts to be bleed-over between the two, little bits of information that pop up in both cases, helping Mike to solve both.

This is one of those impressive pilots that leaves you wondering how on earth they carry this story forward for a full season, much less for a multi-year run. But this cast is superb (and Laura Innes will be joining in later weeks, apparently as the chief of police), and the show does a terrific job of dealing with its complicated structure; it's always clear when we've switched realities and which one we're in.

The question is whether or not the writers will feel compelled to explain everything. I'd be perfectly happy if they didn't; the show is entirely compelling as a metaphor for how we handle bereavement and a character study on one man living an unusual life. From the teaser scenes we got at the end of the episode, though, it seems clear that there's going to be some sort of elaborate conspiracy to explain everything, and I'm slightly worried about how that will play out.

The show may sound more depressing than it really is. Yes, there's sadness to it; Mike has lost a family member in each reality, after all, and his wife and son are grieving those losses without the escape valve that Mike has. But the show has been smart enough to begin the action some weeks or months after the action, at a point where Mike and his family are beginning to move on with their lives, finding ways to cope with the absence of the person who's gone.

I don't know if this show can be sustained in the long run, but it's gotten off to a strong enough start that I will be perfectly happy to watch it for however long it can keep up the juggling act.

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