Awake is the most exciting new show of the season, but the question remains: can it lift the dark cloud hanging over NBC’s 10 PM Thursday time slot? The midseason replacement for The Firm, now burning off its remaining episodes in the desert of Saturday night at 9, and Prime Suspect (R.I.P. Maria Bello’s Hat) looks promising, and yet after only three episodes that garnered mediocre viewership, it still hovers somewhere in cancellation limbo.
The pilot, which was a really well-executed hour of television, did alright with just over 6 million viewers. But it was up against mostly reruns, which does not bode well. Does this mean Awake is destined to join the other critically adored but virtually unwatched shows like Arrested Development, or creator Kyle Killen’s previous project Lone Star? That one was famously cancelled after only two episodes, and yet anyone who’s seen it quite liked it.
Here’s why Awake is worth it. The multiple-reality concept drama from Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24) and Killen is the rare truly novel idea. The deal is that police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy—OMG, I know) survives a horrific car crash. As a result he is forced to live in two parallel realities: one in which only his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), survives, and one in which his son, Rex (Dylan Minnette) does. Britten accesses these realities alternately: he goes to sleep in one, he wakes up in the other. To keep track of which he’s in, Britten wears a different colored rubber band on his wrist: green in his son’s world, and red in his wife’s. Scenes in the respective realities are tinged with the representative colors. In both he sees a work-mandated shrink. In the red world, he sees Dr. Lee (BD Wong), an aggressive doctor determined to get Britten to admit that the other world is a fabrication of his own mind. In the green world, he sees the more amicable Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) who is fascinated by the phenomenon.
As if that’s not enough, Awake is also a police procedural. It’s caught some flak for that. Some say it cheapens the concept, that it’s an easy out, that it’s an unfortunate network note infecting an otherwise promising new show. It’s really not that big a deal. Britten would have needed a job. Maybe he could have been a doctor or a lawyer, but similar criticisms would have cropped up: “it’s a rote medical drama/legal procedural! Boring.” So, Britten’s a cop, he solves cases in both worlds and details from red cases pop up somewhere in the green cases. Just few episodes in, and Britten’s consciously taking advantage of this: he’ll go to sleep to access one reality in order to gather clues that might be relevant in the other.
This could prove to be the show’s hook. The first few episodes did an exceptional job of world building twice over, and now it’s time to see how Britten will stretch the limits of his capabilities within and between his two realities. Awake could be pretty good if it was just Britten waking up in a different world each day, but it will become awesome if Britten manipulates his position between them and has to deal with the benefits and the consequences.
Aside from the procedural element and an ill-advised conspiracy theory tacked on to the end of the second episode, Awake really is a well-crafted drama. The case could be made that it’s complicated, but that’s a refreshing quality for a network show: it respects the audience and expects it to pay attention. The “case of the week,” though criticized, gives each episode a close-ended quality, which in a world of weekend-long Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones marathons, is refreshing. Each episode of Awake contributes to the series’ mythology and a season-long arc, but with a case solved at the end of every one it makes for a satisfying stand-alone hour of TV.
Whether or not Awake can survive remains to be seen, but here’s hoping we get that chance.
Awake airs on NBC Thursdays at 10 PM.
by Lauren Herstik