Pilot Review: Awake

For almost a year now, those of us who lurk in the wings of the television criticism world have been teased with rumors and details about an NBC drama called Awake. Introduced at the upfront presentation in the summer of 2011 and held for mid-season, critics who saw the pilot haven’t stopped talking about it since, and in their conversation reached two points of consensus. One, Awake was the best pilot coming out of the 2011 development cycle, more ambitious and better-looking than any other network offering. Two, it was a show destined for failure, thanks to a complicated premise seemingly inaccessible or unsustainable for a network – a premise from the creator of Lone Star no less, a program famous for how much critics loved it and how horribly it flopped upon airing.

So now after months of rumors and constant shuffling on the part of NBC, Awake has finally found a home on Thursday nights. And while the latter point won’t be addressed until after we see a few more episodes, I can assert that the former is entirely true. Taken simply as an hour of television, the pilot episode of Awake is one of the best things I’ve seen yet this year: gorgeously shot, compellingly acted and written in a manner that defied expectations.

Awake centers on Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), a homicide detective whose existence is shattered by a freak car accident in which both his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) are passengers. The event somehow fractures his reality into two completely different lives – one in which his son died in the crash and his wife survived, and another where the opposite occurred – and he transitions between them by simply going to sleep. Beyond the fact that this allows him to keep both of them in his life albeit not together, he gradually realizes that there are connections and recurring elements between the dreams that allow him to piece together criminal investigations in each reality.

Now as far as plots on a network or even cable drama go, that sounds remarkably convoluted, which is why the most pleasant surprise about the Awake pilot is how easy the whole thing is to follow. The issue of the split realities is explained in the first few minutes* as Britten sits down with his therapists Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans (B.D. Wong and Cherry Evans, respectively), and the episode instead follows him as he returns from his post-accident administrative leave. The energy instead is on showing how he deals with the new circumstances in both worlds, having to take on two new partners simultaneously (Wilmer Valderrama and Steve Harris) and deal with the different ways his wife and son are grieving.

*It helps that the show itself seems aware of its somewhat in medias res status and seems almost eager to get its story going. When Dr. Lee says “Let’s start at the beginning” during that early session, Britten counters with “No, let’s start right now.”

The decision by creator Kyle Killen to not make Awake‘s pilot a premise pilot was a wise one, as it cuts out all of the expected shock and confusion that Britten would be going through in coming to terms with the two realities. Here, he’s had enough time to become entirely aware of what’s transpiring in his life, to the point that he’s marked his wrists with red and green rubber bands to keep the two worlds straight. When the tension is explored – Dr. Evans using a trick to prove he can’t be dreaming, or a morning when he finds himself without a rubber band – it comes when it challenges the conception of the world he’s been forced to accept. By delivering it that way, I think the emotional impact is even stronger than if we had to deal with it in exposition: he’s made the hard decisions, and suddenly it seems that could all be for nothing.

And beyond Killen’s writing, so much of the credit in keeping the show together goes to pilot director and executive producer David Slade. A veteran of music videos and films such as Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, Slade branched out into television last year with the Breaking Bad episode “Open House” and the craft of that episode is absolutely on display here. The camera work is impeccable, with both the therapy sessions and police investigations constructed in a way that builds tension without ever seeming overly constructed. Together with Killen and executive producer Howard Gordon (co-creator of the similarly excellent the similarly excellent Homeland), the show maintains its momentum even as it twists around two different universes, and there’s no point where I feel it was just phoned in.

What makes the shooting so strong is almost what it doesn’t do, as Slade knows exactly how much he can get away with in terms of simultaneously filming parallel worlds. Much as Britten has marked his wrists with red and green rubber bands to keep the two worlds straight, Slade applies colored filters so viewers can do the same, but their use is judicious enough that the change in color is never distracting. I also commend Slade for not going overboard on the transitions between scenes for shock effect – while the two worlds do regularly interchange without the need for Britten to fall asleep between every scene, it only gets dizzying when Britten himself is losing control of the reality.

Indeed, all of the action and cuts have revolve around Britten, and Jason Isaacs proves himself more than capable of grounding Awake. Isaacs is likely best known to wide audiences as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies, but he couldn’t be delivering a more different performance here. Clearly he’s a man in circumstances he can’t quite understand, but he’s also dealing with it the best he can, and while he conveys the emotion of coping it never becomes overwhelming. More than once, I was reminded of Jon Hamm’s as Mad Men‘s Don Draper, both men who have to invest their all in maintaining a double life and bear up well under the burden.

The rest of the cast is still strong but so far limited in their performances, given that as they (may) technically exist only in Britten’s mind they can’t develop much character beyond how they react to him. B.D. Wong left the strongest impression as the more forceful of Britten’s therapists (probably owing to years to practice in his tenure as Dr. Huang on Law and Order: SVU), though Cherry Evans’s gentler approach does get good results when she tries to trick Britten out of his illusion using the Constitution. Valderrama and Harris are going for different types of cop – the former a lucky rookie, the latter a jaded vet – and force Isaacs to take two different tactics in explaining the “hunches” he gets from the other reality. Both Allen and Minnette* feel the most like non-entities to start out, but neither one’s been reduced to an idealized image and (once again) force reactions from Britten as they cope with grief without his advantages.

*At the very least, Minnette’s quiet grief is certainly better than the plethora of irritating teenage sons we’ve seen recently on shows like V, Terra Nova and The River.

So, there’s a lot to like about this pilot, but how is this going to fare in future episodes? The police procedural aspect of it will certainly give it a structure to keep episodes generated; though as we’ve seen on Grimm, the more ambitious cop show needs to step up their game or the procedural elements begin to feel stale. Also, the worry of how the show will maintain its atmosphere without Slade behind the camera is cause for concern, though certainly many shows have been able to keep the majority of what their pilot’s director brought to the table.

Honestly though, in watching the pilot, I found myself adopting Britten’s attitude toward his dual lives, and his resolution that even if his situation is unsustainable it is worth it to have both loved ones still in his life. Maybe no one will watch tonight or in the weeks to come, or maybe the doomsayers are right and the show will fall apart under the weight of its narrative, but right now I’m content to deal with that later. Killen, Slade, Isaacs and company have made Awake‘s pilot an incredibly solid hour of television, and even if we never see another episode past that it’s absolutely worth the time to watch.

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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