The pilot of the new high-concept NBC drama promises some poignant human drama.
Detective Michael Britten is having a hard time adjusting to life after the car accident that killed his wife. Or did it kill his fifteen-year old son? Apparently, it's both.
Awake, NBC's newest primetime drama, puts forth some pretty big questions for its lead character. Britten (Jason Isaacs, who also produces), is living simultaneously in two alternate realities, one in which his son survives the car crash, and one in which his wife does. By episode's end, Britten comes to the conclusion that despite his fractures reality, he still, in a way, has his family whole. The pain of never being able to be with his wife and son at the same time is mitigated somewhat by the fact that he still has them in his life at all after having had to bury them both. Getting there, though is a journey through the mind that brings up issues of dream logic and existence, as well as some genuine human emotion.
Probably the most remarkable thing about the Awake pilot is how palpable the Britten's grief is. The camera moves and clever editing make this a pretty stylish show, but it's never really flashy. The gimmickry is able to lay off just enough to let the drama shine here. Isaacs accesses his emotions pretty readily, but he's also very subtle about it. His pain is written all over his craggy face, particularly in the "Rex Reality (where Britten's son Rex is still alive)." Not only has Britten lost his wife, but he's never been more distant from young Rex, who seems to be seeking comfort in his tennis coach (Michaela McManus, recently of Law & Order: SVU). In the "Hannah Reality," his wife (Laura Allen, from Terriers) is dealing with the loss of her son as best as she could, at least on the surface. There are some signs of impulsivity and she seems almost too wiling to move on.
The differences between the two realities goes beyond Britten's family. He has two different partners, he's investigating two different crimes, and he's seeing two different therapists. While his partners (Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama) are pretty much interchangeable in the early going, Britten's therapists take two different tacks in treating him. Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones), who treats Britten in the Rex Reality, is more nurturing, and is trying to help Britten unpack the meaning of his "dream" while Dr. Lee (BD Wong) is more confrontational, and is trying to shatter any illusions Britten is harboring about alternate realities. The biggest chunks of intrigue get injected when elements of the two realities start to inform each other, not only in the way Britten tells each therapist what the other is saying (causing them to react to each other despite never meeting), but also when elements of the two crimes he's solving start to bleed together. It brings some twisting fun, but also advances the premise really nicely.
More than anything else, the pilot is a sensual, emotional experience that is expressive and winning, and all the technical details really help it flourish. It's shot beautifully, and it utilizes different color schemes and temperatures to subtly clue us in on which world Britten is in at any given point. The Rex Reality is a little cooler, closer to white, while The Hannah Reality is warmer, using more yellows and oranges. As a visual cue, it neatly categorizes where Britten is, keeping the viewer grounded and aware without too much confusion (except one great scene where Britten himself is confused, having woken up without realizing which reality he's in). It's also wonderfully acted by a nice collection of TV names. Isaacs' emotions are so accessible to him that he's able to exhibit a warm, nuanced performance that really carries the show. It helps that the cast gets such a natural, graceful script full of fascinating characters grounded in a pretty real place.
Awake, or at least its pilot, is a pretty artful and certainly ambitious work of television that really delivers on a lot of promise. Jason Isaacs is a wonderful centerpiece for such an emotionally rich story. The premise gets a lot of follow-through, and although bits of the plot may feel derivative of such works as Inception and Fringe, it really lives in its own skin and distinguishes itself as a heady mix of brain-teasing alternate reality fiction and complex human poignancy.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch