One of the big narrative temptations is to play “What if?,” exchanging one tragically random outcome for a possible other. The danger is not just science fiction’s dreaded paradox, there is also the risk of flat-out hokeyness.
This is the problem with NBC’s stylish new psychological crime drama, “Awake”: Once you get the premise, where else do you go with it, except around and around? It doesn’t help matters that “Awake” is premiering Thursday night in a haunted time slot already vacated by “The Firm” and “Prime Suspect.” The bar’s low, but the cancellation danger is high.
As you’ve probably surmised from NBC’s remarkably concise “Awake” ad campaign, it’s about a Los Angeles homicide detective, Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who survives a disastrous roll-over car crash while driving with his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), and his teenage son, Rex (Dylan Minnette).
Michael then finds himself living in two realities: In one life, he wakes up to find that his wife survived the crash but their son died, which is terribly sad. In the other reality, the son lived, but the wife didn’t, which also is terribly sad. Whenever Michael goes to sleep, he transitions back and forth between these two grief-and-relief realms, where, because “Awake” is at heart a crime procedural, he must also solve murders.
This is not as confusing as it sounds, but it is quickly exhausting. In each reality, Michael has a therapist to talk to. Cherry Jones is Dr. Evans, who urges Michael to explore the potential in what she believes is hyper-lucid dreaming. His other therapist, the more blunt and skeptical Dr. Lee (BD Wong), counsels Michael to get a grip. Independent of each other, both therapists assure him that the reality in which he is confiding to them is real life, ergo the other one must be a dream.
Michael decides to live fully in both realities — forget sleep! — so that he never has to fully let go of Hannah or Rex. His police work is also slightly different now: In one reality, he is partnered with a headstrong rookie (Wilmer Valderrama); in the other reality he works with a seen-it-all colleague (Steve Harris). Clues from homicides in his separate realities begin to interweave, increasing Michael’s ability to solve them.
That should mean that Michael and the whole “Awake” premise should get a transfer to CBS’s Special Abilities Unit, where clairvoyants, mentalists and superior rememberers are free to do their thing at crime scenes.
“Awake” has higher ambitions, however. It was created by Kyle Killen, whose last TV show was Fox’s “Lone Star,” which is unfortunately more known for it’s brutally swift cancellation than its cinematic feel and heart.
Killen isn’t fooling around this time. “Awake” is determinedly a procedural first and a drama second. As lovingly written and organized as it is, the viewer must divide his or her time picking up on different scenarios and moods, caught between rather ho-hum murder cases and this other, more beguiling attempt to craft a show that is about the nature of loss and grief.
Something about “Awake” is a bit too drowsy. British actor Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy to “Harry Potter” movie fans; also memorable to those who enjoyed Showtime’s “Brotherhood”) plays Michael with an understatedly macho ache that often fails to fully captivate the camera’s attention. Jones and Wong, meanwhile, are excellent and even vaguely sinister as the dueling shrinks.
It remains to be seen if further episodes will propel Michael’s dilemma into a broader mystery . Why has this happened? Is he the one who’s really dead? Is he mentally ill?
But, given the way networks burn through shows, it also remains to be seen whether there will be many more episodes that remain to be seen.
(one hour) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on NBC.