Can’t Wake Up: Awake

The show opens with a calm moment, as lights pass over the grass on the edge of a road and just before a screech signals imminent disaster. It’s this moment that sets up the entire premise of Awake, starring Jason Isaacs (whom most people will remember as Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter). At the wheel is Michael Britten, a homicide detective who’s about to have the worst imaginable tragedy: he collectively loses his wife and son in the accident. He’s a man between two worlds: in one, his wife is alive, but his son has perished. In the other, his wife has died, but his son still lives. Britten lives each day by alternating: going to sleep in one world means waking up in another.

The pilot episode for Awake is stunningly brilliant: it’s beautifully shot, directed by David Slade, with a great eye towards the visual styles that separate out the two worlds. One is soaked in bright shades where Britten’s son is alive, while the other is clad in darker, moody tones. To keep them apart, Britten wears a wristband that corresponds with the two worlds: red for his son’s reality, green for his wife’s.

The premise of Awake has an incredible amount of potential: In each world, Britten works with a psychologist in each world, trying to figure out why he’s experiencing each reality, and trying to cope with the idea that each presents to him: the other world is most certainly the imaginary one, a construct in his mind designed to cope with the loss of one of his loved ones. There are a number of elements touched on here in the show: trying to remember which world he’s working in, trying to move on from the accident, and above all, trying to continue on with his life. Britten comes to the determination that the only way to move forward is to accept the situation: where this is the type of problem that would be the first impediment in front of the character, Awake looks elsewhere for story ideas.

This is the crux of where Awake has turned from what could be an interesting genre television show, and into the potential for a great one: it takes on some very heady issues: what is the real reality, how do you come to terms with losing the people important to you, and how do you react to trauma? It’s delivered with smart writing and fantastic acting, scenes that had me at the edge of my seat while watching it a couple of weeks ago.

The high quality of the show reminds me of some other high-concept shows: NBC’s 2009 show Kings, and ABC’s 2007 show Daybreak. Unfortunately, both shows had limited runs: they ran for less than a season before they were cancelled due to low audience numbers, and I worry that this same fate might befall Awake before it gets a running start. Hopefully, excellent reviews in the New York Times, NPR, LA Times and Hollywood Reporter will help give the show the critical legitimacy to push it up over the edge.

What I have enjoyed so far in the show is that there is no clear or easy answer for Britten that has been painted out by lazy writers: the characters here are ones that are well crafted, and it’s painful to think of what might happen to them, much like George R.R. Martin has demonstrated with his own characters and their inability to remain alive. Awake has an excellent cast that makes me dread some of what might be coming up for them. This also isn’t one of the numerous LOST clones, trying to shock the audience into sticking with the show: questions and possibilities arise throughout in ways not seen since that show, but here, it feels far more organic, rather than the product of a writer’s room.

Regardless of the length of Awake, it’s something that I hope remains around because of the fantastic writing and acting that we’ve seen, not just because I’m looking to get to the end of the story. This is television at its very best, and for that reason, it’s something that you should check out tonight when it airs at 9pm.

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