Tuned In

Test Pilot: Awake

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Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next season’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: Awake, NBC

The Premise: Police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) survives a horrible car crash with his family. His teenage son is killed but his wife lives. Or maybe not. For when Britten goes to sleep, he wakes up to a reality in which his son is alive and his wife is dead. Until he goes to sleep again and wakes up next to his wife. In both “realities” Britten is seeing a psychiatrist, each of whom, in extensive therapy sessions, explains that he has conceived the other world as an elaborate dream as a coping mechanism. But there are certain things analysis can’t explain: in both realities, Britten is working his police job, and finds himself solving crimes using clues and information that he has come across in his other existence. Is one life real and the other a dream? And would Britten ever want to give up either?

First Impressions: Awake is a midseason show, and in these Test Pilot posts, I generally try to focus on series debuting in the fall, rather than God-knows-when in the new year. But most of the most interesting shows the networks announced were for midseason, this one chief among them, and it was far and away the series people were most interested in when I took an informal poll on Twitter. The pilot, anyway, lives up to the hype. Emotionally and structurally it’s something close to a tour de force: Isaacs conveys his character’s mourning with a brooding intensity, and the therapy sessions, which could be the death of involving drama, are as involving and intrigue-filled as the police cases—probably more so. (Some nice touches: there are small differences in the Britten’s two lives, such as the color of the memorial wristband he wears, and there’s a gut-tightening freak-out scene in which he begins to doubt the truth of his reality.) As an hour of TV, the pilot is moving and fascinating. One caveat, though, is a familiar one to creator Kyle Killen, who made of last season’s short-lived Lone Star: like that dual-life pilot, I have an easier time seeing how this would work as a movie than sustain as a TV-series. (Though in general I find the first hour of Awake better-executed.) That said…

Do I want to watch another episode? …I can’t wait to close my eyes and find out.