Review: NBC’s ‘Awake’ walks carefully between two worlds

LA cop Mike Britten, the hero of NBC’s new drama “Awake” (premiering tomorrow night at 10), survives a car crash and enters a strange new world where it’s not clear what’s real and what isn’t. He begins splitting time between two separate realities: one where wife Hannah survived the crash while son Rex died, and another where the opposite is true.

At least, it’s not clear to the two therapists Britten is seeing in the two realities what’s real and what isn’t. As far as Mike Britten is concerned, nothing is a dream and everything is real. When one asks if he’s not sure whether he’s awake or asleep, he replies, “Of course I’m awake. I’m awake with my wife, I close my eyes, and I’m awake with my son.”

In this way, Mike Britten gets to have it all – or as close as any man can in the aftermath of such a horrible event – by keeping his wife and his son alive, if not together, for as long as possible. (And because he views events that way, “Awake” is surprisingly not depressing, given that it’s a series about how we deal with grief.)

And from the moment I first watched the “Awake” premiere – far and away the best pilot episode I saw for any network series this season (and up there with the debut of Showtime’s “Homeland,” which shares producer Howard Gordon, for best drama pilot anywhere this season) – I’ve been wondering exactly what’s real and what isn’t about the show itself, and whether it can manage to have it all in the way that Britten does for now.

Here is what I know to be real about this show: The first episode is a tremendous piece of television, which takes what could be a very convoluted scenario and makes it both clear and emotionally engaging. Jason Isaacs is compelling and moving as Britten, as are Laura Allen as Hannah and Dylan Minnette as Rex. The pilot looks beautiful, thanks to director David Slade and the decision to color-code the two worlds so that the Hannah scenes have a reddish tint while any scene in Rex’s world look green. There are also good supporting performances by B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones as Britten’s two therapists and Wilmer Valderama and Steve Harris as his two partners. (Wong and Valderama are in the red world, Jones and Harris in the green one.) The pilot practically works as a standalone short film, and I’d recommend it to anyone regardless of what would happen in future weeks.

Here’s what I wasn’t sure was real after seeing just the pilot: whether Gordon and creator Kyle Killen (who was responsible for another great pilot about a man living two lives with last season’s “Lone Star”) could maintain the quality, coherence and style of the pilot on a weekly basis.

After seeing three additional episodes, I’m confident in the reality of certain things, less so in others. If Killen and Gordon don’t exactly maintain the quality of the pilot each week – subsequent episodes don’t look as rich nor pack as big an emotional whallop – they come close enough, particularly in dealing with Britten’s work and family lives. Among the smartest moves Killen made was starting the series some time after the accident, so that Britten has already adjusted to this fantastic situation, and even attempted to discuss it with Hannah. (Unsurprisingly, just hearing about what sounds like a fantasy about the son she’ll never see again, she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.) Too many high-concept shows like this (NBC’s “Journeyman” comes to mind) waste too many episodes on the hero learning about his new gift and struggling to accept what it means, rather than telling interesting stories that make use of the gift. “Awake” skips past most of the boring exposition (though the two shrinks help Britten make sense of why cases in one world offer clues to cases in the other) and dives deep into things.

So all of that is very good. I’m just not sure which interpretation of “Awake” is the real one. Is it a mythology-driven sci-fi show about a man living in a fantastic circumstance where the explanation will be of paramount importance? Or is it a character-driven police procedural with a fantastic twist that’s better left unexamined as anything but a source of plot twists and heartwarming moments?

I want to believe it’s the latter – mainly because it works much better at the latter.

The parts of the later “Awake” episodes that just show Britten working cases (using knowledge gleaned in one world to help him out in the other) and trying to heal his grieving wife and son remain very strong. If the show aimed to be a darker kind of “Early Edition” where Britten just goes with things and no one really questions what’s causing this, I think it could be very effective for a long time.

I just don’t know if there’s room for that kind of show in this current TV landscape. Starting with “The X-Files” – where, not coincidentally, Howard Gordon got his big break – audiences have slowly been conditioned to look for clues and deeper meanings about anything with even the faintest whiff of science fiction. There’s a major (and very “X-Files”-ish) revelation near the end of the second episode designed to play to that way of thinking, but A)it doesn’t seem very interesting, and B)isn’t really followed up on in the next two episodes. It’s a no-win approach: fans who want to know what the “Lost” Numbers mean, what the “Battlestar Galactica” opera house dreams were about, and why “The X-Files” bad guys were so obsessed with bees are going to be irked that this stuff only comes up occasionally, and many viewers who might be more drawn to the police work and family scenes won’t want to think very deeply about parallel universes and conspiracy theories.

There’s overlap between those two groups – I fall into the center of that particular Venn diagram – but my attention here definitely leaned more towards the day-to-day of Britten’s strange but largely positive dual lives.

Some of the scenes with the shrinks begin to feel repetitive, but every now and then, one or the other pushes an interesting button. When Jones’ Dr. Evans suggests Britten needs to let one reality go so he can survive in the other, he barks, “This thing works because I make it work. And nothing’s gonna change that. I won’t let it.”

Leave aside whatever problems “Awake” faces as a show with a complicated premise and format, airing on a network that’s struggled for years to launch new dramas, in a timeslot that was once fertile and now feels like the earth has been salted. If it gets an initial tune-in, can a version of this show where Mike Britten gets to maintain the strange new status quo for a long time work? Does the show need to evolve to survive, or will trying to analyze and adapt the magic just ruin the trick?

Again, I don’t know. But like Detective Britten, when I open my eyes and see what “Awake” has put in front of me, I’m happy. If it falls apart later, it does. But I’m going to enjoy it until then.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at


NOTE: Because NBC made the pilot episode so widely-available in the last few weeks, I’m saying it’s okay to discuss it in detail in the comments. If you haven’t seen it, read at your own risk. I’ll do a separate talkback post tomorrow night for people who see it for the first time on NBC.