Awake debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Todd VanDerWerff: The pilot episode of Awake, airing tonight, is a great piece of televised art. The script is witty, warm, and soulful. The performances—particularly from lead Jason Isaacs—are delicate and almost perfect. David Slade’s direction conveys the emotional world of the show so well that you could watch it on mute and grasp most of what’s going on. In particular, Slade’s use of color—of reds and greens and blues, meant to boil the show’s complicated premise down into a visual aesthetic—is so wonderful that a whole article (or two) could be written about how he suggests places where realities overlap and intertwine, just through placement of a red scarf. At the end of the episode, you’ll leave feeling like you’ve seen something unique and wonderful, something worth watching every week in an increasingly crowded television landscape.
Then, next week, the show turns into a fairly standard cop drama with a twist.
There’s really nothing wrong with this. The show’s creator and one of its executive producers is Kyle Killen, who was the man responsible for the late, lamented Lone Star, which lasted but two episodes on Fox in the fall of 2010. Killen has a way with dialogue and with boiling down characters to everything they are in a few words, so even when he’s doing the standard stories about murdered corpses and missing children, he’s tossing in a few idiosyncratic quirks here and there. Killen’s characters feel like real characters who just happen to be cops, not mystery-solving machines, and even if there’s a case-of-the-week element to Awake, the very premise of the show necessitates that it will be a different sort of thing from the case of the week on NCIS.
At the same time, that premise is so loopy and wild and wonderful that it’s tempting to wish that the show had somehow followed the pilot’s lead more thoroughly. The pilot is filled with a kind of otherworldly awe at what’s happening to its central character, detective Michael Britten (Isaacs), a man who survives a car crash and finds himself split between two different worlds, one of which is a dream and one of which is reality, though he can’t tell. In one world, his wife (Terriers’ Laura Allen, as earthy and winning here as she was on that show) survived the crash and now longs to rebuild the life they once had. In another, his son (Dylan Minnette, best known as Jack’s mysterious sideways son from Lost) is the one who survived, and he and his dad struggle to bury the now-dead woman who bound them together.
Already in the pilot, Killen is playing games with how these two realities can inform and affect each other. Michael has two therapists—B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones, both having an immense amount of fun—who keep trying to cause a situation where he’ll realize which reality is the “real” one, so the other might fade away and he can move on. The two end up in conversation with each other, through an intermediary, as they will necessarily never meet, but can deliver messages through their shared patient. Similarly, Michael’s two partners—Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama—occupy different roles in his life in each reality, while each reality also carries with it the promise of new beginnings, in a comely young tennis coach who takes an interest in Michael or his wife’s desire to have a new baby. No matter which reality is real, everybody else is pressing forward, moving on. Yet Michael is stuck in both worlds, aching because he can’t choose between letting his wife live or letting his son live.
It’s an evocative, exceptionally emotional premise, and Killen, Slade, and Isaacs make the most of every moment that allows it to be explored in depth. Even in the second, third, and fourth episodes, the emotional moments ring true, particularly when Mike distances himself from the grief expressed by his wife—who knows about his “dreams”—because their son is still alive for him somewhere. There are questions that pop up, of course, about just why these realities exist independently of Mike (since we get little storylines about his wife and son and other characters in subsequent episodes), but those are the usual elements that most viewers will willingly suspend their disbelief for if the final product is this haunting.
The cop-drama elements aren’t even the problem, really, since the show’s format allows it to pull fun tricks like have cases bleed over into each other, so Mike is solving one case in one reality but finding clues that pertain to the other reality as well. Is it, as his therapists suggest, just his subconscious reminding him of things he’s missed while asleep? Or is something else going on here? Killen, co-executive producer Howard Gordon, and their writers don’t deviate too much from standard cop-drama storylines—if you’ve ever seen a police procedural, you’ll know pretty much every beat that’s coming—but both the format and the characters allow them to get away with more than they usually might. (There’s a weird over-reliance on stories about dirty cops, but it may be part of the texture of the world Killen is building.)
The single most glaring element enters at the end of episode two, and it threatens to topple everything, even though it occupies, conservatively, two minutes of screentime. There’s an effort made to introduce something like a “mythology” to the show, an underlying storyline that viewers are supposed to play along with here and there, but that mythology is absolutely bog standard and depressingly deployed in the sorts of shadowy scenes where two characters hiss meaningless threats at each other and speak in vague tones. Awake has been so cognizant of the way that humans might actually behave in this situation that it’s disappointing to watch it go through the already-tired paces of yet another plot about conspiracies our hero doesn’t know about and secrets that will all eventually tie together in a way half the audience will inevitably predict.
At the same time, however, there’s something… deflating about going from that pilot, that beautiful piece of TV, to the three episodes that follow. There are interesting things done with the “two realities” conceit, but for the most part, this plays like a normal cop drama. Where the tone of the pilot was wistful and longing, the tone of the episodes that follow is more staid and down-to-earth. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, particularly as episodes of a character-based cop drama. Yet they carry disappointment with them because the show reached so high, attained so much, yet didn’t figure out a way to translate that into an episodic tone. It’s just another cop drama with a twist.
Maybe, in the end, this wasn’t meant to be a TV show. Lone Star also had an unsustainable premise, but it was yanked from the air so quickly that no one ever had to worry about it. Killen obviously learned his lessons from that show, and he’s made a perfectly enjoyable detective show with this one, a perfectly enjoyable detective show that kicks in early and lets you know you’re always going to get your case-of-the-week jollies. But where that pilot felt like Killen and Slade were making the first hour of one of the best films of the year, everything else feels like an exceptionally well-done version of something you can already get in a million other places on TV. This is a good cop drama, but TV already has dozens of cop dramas. It doesn’t, however, have anything like the pilot for Awake. It’s easy to see why that tone gets left behind, but it’s still a shame.
Pilot grade: A
First four episodes grade: B
Ryan McGee: It’s never fun to find fault in a show with this much ambition. But it’s even less fun when a show with this much ambition also features some of the finest acting currently on display in network television. It often takes a few episodes for even the best of dramas to get their hooks into you when it comes to the characters’ fates. But with Awake, I was immediately engaged with the dilemma facing Michael Britten, and by the end of the pilot, I understood why he had no desire to “solve” the mystery surrounding his dual existence. Then again, I’m not into shows that concern the need to solve things. The best shows provide resolution, but that’s different from providing answers.
So why on Earth did the show feel the need to introduce an element so colossally stupid that it threatens to undo the entire enterprise? I don’t mean to keep harping on the problems that stem from the show’s high-concept pilot stretching out into a series. After actually seeing the pilot itself, I wasn’t really stressed about figuring out which world was real, so long as each one stayed compelling enough on its own. As a character study, Awake is fairly stellar. But either Killen, Gordon, or (most likely) NBC decided that simply being a character study wouldn’t be enough to interest viewers over the long term. Thus, insert The Conspiracy, an element that reeks of too many cooks spoiling the otherwise tasty broth.
As a narrative technique, the conspiracy actually fundamentally undoes the central conceit of the show. Throughout the pilot, we’re thrust into this world exclusively through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. We don’t know what’s going on any more than Michael does, which puts both him and the audience on an even playing field. But subsequent episodes stray from his perspective, offering up scenes that couldn’t possibly be playing out in his mind because he’s not there to witness them. These scenes change the prism through which we view the entire endeavor, and call attention to the artifice that we’re watching. Once the show starts drifting away from Michael, Awake becomes less about how he feels about the people that exist in each world and more about which one of them is actually real. And when this show turns into a guessing game about which world we should treat as true, then the potential exists to root for one world over the other. That might excite some, but reduces what could have been a powerful meditation on grief and healing into another rote procedural with an overarching mythology that moves at the speed of continental drift. And that move doesn’t help anyone: not Awake, not its viewers, and not NBC.