When the sight of Wilder Valderrama in a dramatic role does nothing to take away from a television series, clearly something is going well. NBC's Awake, the latest from Lone Star creator Kyle Killen, opened its run with a spectacular pilot that hit hard in both the heart and the brain. Seriously, this pilot was one of the best first episodes of a series I've seen in years. I really, really like this pilot. We'll get to whether or not Awake can survive as a series later, but as protagonist Michael Britten says, let's start with right now.
The premise of Awake is heartbreaking: Michael (Jason Isaacs), a Los Angeles detective, was in a car crash with his son and wife. The accident claimed one fatality, and Michael came out of the accident in a bizarre circumstance: He now lives in two realities that switch when he wakes up. In one, his wife survived the crash. In the other, his son survived. He doesn't know whether he's dreaming and he doesn't know which reality is real.
We've seen countless movies and TV shows about questioning reality. The protagonist's only desire is to figure out what's real or not, pushing away what he thinks is fabricated in his struggle to find the truth. Then he figures out, your mind ends up in a state of being blown, and you go home. Awake isn't like that at all. Michael Britten isn't like that at all.
What makes Awake unique is how Michael handles his situation. He doesn't want to know what's real, he just wants to have his family back. And the only way he can have that now is to walk the line between both realities. He's happy in both. He needs both. Is it heartbreaking to watch him desperately grasp at both realities and refuse to progress? Or is it uplifting to see a man fight so hard and sacrifice so much for his family? Awake falls in that magic place somewhere in the middle, but ultimately Michael's struggle is nothing short of beautiful.
But there are forces at work that are making Michael's dual citizenship extremely difficult. The use of work-ordered psychiatrists in both realities is brilliant and a key to the series. The two shrinks are practically dueling with each other, each one presenting a pretty solid argument for his or her side being real and slowly tearing Michael right down the middle. It's incredibly effective in creating the world Michael lives in for the audience. And how about that scene where Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) had him read the Constitution? She was just doing her job. She wants him to get better and made a pretty good case that hers is the real reality, which just about offended Michael and sent him spiraling into confusion. It's telling that the only time Michael flips out is when he thinks he's losing one of his realities.
Michael's son Rex and wife Hannah are also going to make things hard on Michael. Rex is completely devastated after losing his mom. Hannah is in some strange combination of denial and being ready to move on. Going back and forth between seeing these two in different spaces is going to be brutal for Michael to keep up with; plus, neither person is really gone for Michael. What's going to happen when Michael tells Rex he sees Rex's mother every other day? Will Michael be able to relay messages back and forth between the two?
Awake also gets to show itself off as a procedural, though the police work is a distant second to the show's main concept. Not even two minutes into the opening, we saw Michael at work, solving the case of a shooting. Now, many high-concept shows have found lives on network television by adding procedural elements, and Awake is no different. There was a case in each reality in the first episode, but ultimately they were both inconsequential (and how could they not be while sharing so much time with so much else?). But Awake knows that it won't survive as just a procedural, and has found a way to tell more of its bigger story through Michael's everyday casework. There's the obvious mixing of clues across realities, adding depth to Michael's mysterious condition. There are the same characters in different circumstances in both realities. But what really resonated with me in the pilot was the way people responded to him, particularly Detective Vega (Valderrama) and Detective Freeman (Steve Harris). His partners in both realities know what's happened to him and what's going on in his head. It's a constant reminder of how much Michael has to juggle between his work and his personal life, his sanity and his grief, his secret life and the life he is in now. Michael's burning the dynamite on both ends with a flamethrower, and he's only one misstep or lapse of detail away from frying his brain.
I've heard that later episodes don't look as good as the pilot episode, but wow! How gorgeous of a show is this? The color schemes for each reality, the cuts between the two sides, and the simple score all come together to make Awake more art piece than TV show. Stunning work all around. Pat yourselves on the back, whoever you are. Phenomenal acting by everyone involved, too, with a special shout-out to Isaacs, Jones, and B.D. Wong as Dr. Lee.
There are obvious concerns about the series' longevity, given its concept. Awake can't tell us which side of Michael's life is real, and really, I don't think that's important—nor do I think the answer is as simple as "one is real and one is not." Where I hope Awake goes is in examining how Michael is able to maintain both realities, and how his relationship with his son and wife are strained given that his grieving is entirely different. But if Michael Britten has taught me anything, it's to worry about that when you get to it and appreciate what you have now.
Notes & Questions
– I loved the monologue in the last scene so much that I might get it tattooed on my back. Isaacs delivered it so well and was so convincing. "The thing is doctor, yes I still see my wife and my son. But I've also watched both of them lowered into the ground. And when you see a loved one buried, you have one thought over and over again. And that's you would do anything—anything—to get them back. So if you're telling me the price of seeing them, feeling them, of having them in my life is my sanity, it's a price I will happily pay. Now I'll come and see you, talk to you, as long as they make me, but trust me, when it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress." A defining moment of the 2011-2012 TV season for me.
– Is it okay to sleep with your son's tennis instructor in one reality and sleep with your wife in the other? What's the morality police's verdict on that?
– It's not often that a show has a single character in every single scene, but Michael was there in pretty much every frame. Can the show even operate and hold its premise in any other way?
– What was your reaction to Hannah telling Michael to tell Rex she loves him at the end? God, that killed me.
– I think we're all a little worried that the show will get canceled quickly because of bad ratings. But I think NBC will at least let it run out its first season. They tend to be more lenient on shows because they just don't have much else.
– How much did you cry?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom