Tuned In

TV Tonight: Awake

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Lewis Jacobs/NBC

What’s more depressing than a primetime drama about a man mourning the death of his wife? Maybe a primetime drama about a man mourning the death of his child. And what’s more depressing than either of those two? A primetime drama about a man mourning the death of his wife and his child, one after the other, over and over, forever.

So it might seem, anyway, and this may make NBC’s Awake a very tough sell to Thursday-night audiences. But Awake–a high-concept drama about a man occupying two different realities, one in which his wife died in a car crash and one in which his teenage son did–manages something impressive: it focuses unflinchingly on the subject of loss, yet manages to be not a downer or painful to watch, but moving, absorbing and even hopeful.

Awake’s premise is mind-bendy yet simple: police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) and his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) are adjusting to life after surviving a car crash that killed their son Rex (Dylan Minette). Until Michael goes to sleep—for when he wakes up, he’s living in a reality in which Hannah died and Rex survived. Until he goes to sleep again…

And on and on it goes, day after day, Michael never really “sleeping,” and never knowing which (if either) of his existences is real. As you might in this situation, Michael is seeing a shrink—shrinks, actually, one in each reality (B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones), each of whom thinks Michael has invented the other as a coping mechanism. And Michael is glad never to be cured. As he says at the end of the fantastic pilot (already previewing online), “if you’re telling me that the price of seeing them, feeling them, of having them in my life is my sanity, then it’s a price I will happily pay.”

Isaacs is utterly compelling: mature, soulful and wearied. Literally, he never gets a rest, and must deal in one reality with a son acting out from rage, in other other with a spouse who is moving on at a different pace, and in different ways, from him.

I was dubious of police angle, which provides much of the plot structure of each episode; it felt like the sort of procedural-action sop you’d have to offer to get this moody, otherworldly show on the air at a big network. (“And… he’s a cop!”) But in this case the device makes sense. Michael is dealing with some heavy issues, and like many people in his situation he–as well as we in the audience–needs something to do to distract from the constant heaviness.

In this case, it’s solving crimes, with a different partner in each “life” (Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama), each worried about his stability, as are his superiors (including Laura Innes)—hence the department-ordered therapy. Michael’s job doesn’t just help him cope with his double life; his double life helps him with his job, as he finds flashes of information from each reality cluing him in on cases he’s working in the other. (All of which builds on the central conundrum: how can he know all this? Can either “reality” be real–or could both?)

As you’ve probably imagined, this kind of what-is-reality premise is tricky in many senses: Will it confuse the audience? Can it possibly hold up over time? How can it not resolve in some cornball, “It was all a dream” conclusion? (The Tuned In Jrs., who I’d never let watch the show but were interested in the promos, have already come up with a half-dozen plausible reveals, including that Michael Britten is actually the one who’s dead.)

Awake handles the confusion problem well: yes, it takes more concentration than a Law & Order, but it’s no Inception in its twistiness. Michael himself needs to hold on to markers to anchor his sense of reality—for instance, he wears a red and a green wristband in the existences in which his wife and his son are alive, respectively—and those help us follow along too.

The early episodes (I’ve seen four) tease out some interesting possibilities: for instance, as his realities diverge ever more (suppose he moves to another city in one of them?), can both stay intact? But it doesn’t rush over any of blow-your-mind “mythology” points. While the series might invite comparison to the brain-teaser movies of Christopher Nolan, a closer analogue is probably Life on Mars—the better, British version—in which a long-term story about comparative reality coexists with a cop story, but both are grounded in the central character’s emotional state.

And can it maintain beyond the pilot? Here I’m not as certain, but the three followup episodes did better on this score than I feared. The most interesting development, and biggest potential problem, is a plot twist at the end of the second episode (I won’t spoil it), which could wildly expand the mystery—but then goes largely unaddressed in the next two episodes. Can it resolve itself well (as opposed to, say, the American version of Life on Mars)? Obviously I don’t know, but what matters for now is that I want to see where Michael’s going.

Because, and I can’t overemphasize this, Awake is not nearly the downer that its premise might suggest: it manages to be optimistic and even uplifting. Creator Kyle Killen gave us the notoriously short-lived Lone Star last season, which couldn’t survive its melancholy tone and hard-to-sell story about a bigamist protagonist. Here, though, he’s come up with an ingenious way of doing a TV series that deals with the long-term process of grieving, remembering and moving on after a loss, without it being fatally depressing.

The reason: at heart, Awake is not a show about a man whose wife and child die in two realities, but about a man whose wife and child survive in two realities. So as Michael prepares a memorial for Rex in one reality, he works through a crisis involving Rex in the other—in the process, getting to say and hear things that, in real life, we would only wish we still had time for.

Like Michael’s psychiatrists, I’m skeptical whether his two worlds can maintain their integrity in the long haul (not that of actual reality, but of multiple, extended American television seasons). And the show is certainly not flawless: the police work is a little rote, the aforementioned episode-two twist makes me nervous, and Michael’s acceptance of his bifurcated reality seems to come too quickly and easily.

But it’s kind of amazing thing that Awake is trying, and I’m glad to stick around to see if it, too, can extend a rather unlikely life.