Awake: The Other Side of the Pillow

“Of course I’m awake. I’m awake with my wife, I close my eyes, and I’m awake with my son.”

The above quote is spoken by Detective Mike Britten (Jason Isaacs) to one of his psychiatrists but is also a sly elevator pitch to the audience about what to expect when watching Awake. Sometimes the most interesting concepts are the ones that at their core are the easiest to explain. With Awake, NBC attempts to avoid the pitfalls of so many other high-concept series by avoiding the weight of a dense mystery that so frequently alienates new viewers and at the cost of quality storytelling and acting. Needless to say, they achieved that quite admirably.

Awake wisely plummets right into the reality (or realities) of the show, eschewing the stereotypical origin story. Britten, wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) are in a car accident. In one reality Hannah dies from the accident, in the other Rex has perished. The show picks up some time after this accident, with the survivors of each reality already past the initial grief of their loss and trying to move on with their lives. Except for Britten, who awakens each day to the different reality.

Jason Isaacs IS Awake

As you can imagine, that ways heavily on his psyche, as he is able to be with his family, but his wife and son are not able to be together. To help him reconcile the seeming psychosis with the condition, Britten sees a different psychiatrist (B.D. Wong, Cherry Jones) in each reality and while they are clearly trying to help Britten cope with denial and bring him to acceptance (via differing methods), they actually end up getting him to accept the seemingly implausible dual realities he coexists in.

Awake is also intended to be a police procedural and in the pilot, Britten works cases in each reality that end up converging on the same perpetrator. Efram Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) is his rookie partner in one reality while Bird (Steve Harris) is his longtime partner and friend in the other, a conceit that allows for differing reactions to Britten’s unorthodox intuitions about the crimes. It will be interesting to see how the show expands on this approach as it moves into more complex criminal mysteries.

David Slade (30 Days of Night) directed the pilot with a no-nonsense approach, staying away from the type of cinematography found in most cookie-cutter procedurals. Scenes in the two realities are actually tinted towards the two colors that Britten uses himself to differentiate the worlds (via rubberbands around his wrist) with Hannah’s world (red) looking warmer and more natural while Rex’s (green) has a colder look to it.

Awake‘s debut has been long anticipated thanks to the provoking concept and the overwhelming positive buzz the pilot garnered from critics earlier in the television season. (The debut also became desperately yearned for after NBC plunged the toilet of the rest of their 2011-2012 slate.) Another key intrigue for the show was the casting of Isaacs (most notably Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series) and his performance was the foundation of why this pilot episode of Awake worked so well. He never overplays his hand or resorts to melodramatic impulses. It would have been easy to amp up the emotion but that would not have been indicative of a man going through what appears to be denial to those around him, but is actually an intense emotional mystery to a man who solves crimes for a living. Credit to Slade and creator/writer Kyle Killen for creating a realistic space for their actors to work and emote in, while never stooping to cheap parlor tricks and tissue-box melodrama.

The longevity of Awake will depend on how they mix up the overall mythology with the weekly mysteries (and how long the audience sticks around for either). For now, it’s a compelling start with a heart-wrenching hook and better acting than most dramas of its ilk. Most importantly, it’s a bold step in the right direction in the dying genre of high-concept television.

As a personal aside, an old hometown cohort, soccer teammate, and fellow Ramapo College alum Jay Seals appeared briefly as a tech charged with analyzing a hair sample for DNA. Seals’ part will be recurring and it was rather surreal and fun seeing him on the tube. Best of luck to a good actor and a good guy breaking through on the left coast. And…here’s to more crimes with DNA!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆


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