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A show for which to stay ‘Awake’

Published: March 2, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.


It has been an eventful year for television viewers who love sci-fi and fantasy. We were given the fun and captivating “Grimm,” yet we were also given the underwhelming “Once Upon a Time.” We were given the somewhat promising “Touch,” yet we were also given the same “Touch,” which somewhat promises disappointment. NBC is doing everything within its power to jump onto this bandwagon, especially with its new show “Awake,” which premiered last night.
“Awake” had a very good premiere, no question. Often new shows in the sci-fi/fantasy genre do not offer good pilot episodes as they are often too complex truly to draw in a viewer without making them feel either that the show has no depth or that it has too much depth. There is a fine line between overwhelming density and underwhelming banality, yet “Awake” seems to be toeing the line.

The show follows police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) as he struggles to solve cases and to decide whether or not he has gone mad. Britten has just returned to work after a devastating car crash in which he lost one member of his family. Here’s where it gets intriguing though: He lives in two realities and switches between them whenever he goes to sleep; in one reality his son died but his wife survived and in the other his wife died but his son survived. Although there are other differences between the two “realities,” this is the main one.

While this could get very confusing very quickly, the show avoids confusion with some crafty color-coding. Britten wears a red wristband in the reality with his wife because it is her favorite color and green in the reality with his son because it is his favorite color. Additionally, the scenes shot in the reality with the wife are red-tinted while the scenes shot in the reality with the son are green-tinted. Although this could have been very irritating, it is subtly done and merely prevents the viewer from becoming confused.

I was seriously just blown away by how good this pilot was. The writing was impeccable, the storylines were fascinating and the acting was spot-on. While this show could have fallen into the gimmicky dialogues that plague many similar shows, the writers avoid that error with believable dialogue. There was even one meta moment in the pilot in which Britten’s partner in “green world,” Detective Freeman (Steve Harris), reminds Britten that they are in the real world and not on a television show.

Although Harris is not his partner in “red world,” Britten is still a cop and was working a second case in the pilot episode. Halfway through the show I was wondering if the only tie between the two realities would be Britten and told myself that, if that were the case, I would not watch the show again. Luckily, that was not the case, but I will not tell you how the two cases related—watch and find out!

I mentioned the acting before but need to delve back into it. Jason Isaacs plays Michael Britten superbly; he gets the perfect mix between grief that he has buried a member of his family and joy that he will see that person again that night in his “dreams.” One of the strongest points of the character, in fact, is his acceptance that he lives in these two worlds. While I am sure Isaacs would have performed well had the show begun at the time of his accident when he discovered these two realities, the character would not have. Often shows make the pitfall of having the main character struggle with a sudden change in his/her life in the pilot; this is a mistake because the viewers do not care about the protagonist yet. In the pilot for “Awake,” we got to see everyone else struggle with this idea that Britten has already embraced. Additionally, viewers will almost certainly recognize Jason Isaacs as the bad guy from “The Patriot” and as Lucius Malfoy from the “Harry Potter” films.

One of the show’s strongest accomplishments is its pairings between the worlds. For example, each world has a detective partner for Britten; “green world” has the friendly and weathered Harris while “red world” has untrustworthy rookie Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama). Harris plays the buddy perfectly while Valderrama plays the new guy well. While the audience knows that the police captain paired Detective Vega with Britten to keep an eye on him, we are not sure if he will indeed snitch on Britten’s questionable psyche or if he will become like Detective Freeman and be a valued friend. Also, Valderrama is thankfully not doing any of his trademarks from “That ’70s Show”; that would be unforgivable.

Two psychiatrists are also juxtaposed; B.D. Wong plays the hard-hitting psychiatrist in “red world” while Cherry Jones plays the nurturing psychiatrist in “green world.” Although both approach Britten’s problems with differing views and attitudes, they both say some truly insightful things and, while Britten may not question the “truth” of these two realities, the viewers are forced to question which one they believe is real. Or are they both real? Or is neither of them real? Oh, so many questions!

Cherry Jones—also known as that woman who played Allison Taylor on “24”—is again very good. She is the kindly psychiatrist that Britten needs in the world without his wife; her justifications for why she is real and the other psychiatrist is not are very convincing. Similarly, however, so are B.D. Wong’s. We already know though that B.D. Wong can aptly play a psychiatrist—thank you “Law & Order: SVU.”

The last pairing is that of his wife and son, played by Laura Allen and Dylan Minnette respectively. While they were both apt, they were not as good as the other pairings. This may be because the other pairings act as foils both of each other and of Michael Britten. These two, however, are very much their own characters and it is impossible not to pity the woman who lost her son and the boy who lost his mother. But this just takes away focus from Michael Britten, which I do not want.

All in all, I believe that this show will be phenomenal if it is given a chance. The writing is great, the acting is excellent and the idea is intriguing. All we need now is for NBC to give it a chance and not just yank it. The mid-season replacement premier is not promising, but that’s how “Buffy: the Vampire Slayer” started and that ended well. At least it isn’t on Fox, because then we would never see it again.

“Awake” airs on NBC at 10 p.m. on Thursdays. So, although your day may have been tiring, stay “Awake” a little longer and catch this new show.