We just watched a condensed, thirty-minute version of the pilot for NBC's Awake, in which Harry Potter's Jason Isaacs plays a cop jumping between two parallel universes after a horrific car crash...which killed a different family member in each reality.
Isaacs was on hand with producer Howard Gordon and show creator Kyle Killen - whose previous effort, the short-lived Lone Star, was critically acclaimed if very low-rated - and producer to introduce the new footage, which showed nearly a half-hour's worth of footage from throughout the first episode. Here's a rundown of what we saw, followed by our reactions, but I'll say this: I am ridiculously excited to see if this show can live up to all this promise.
The footage we saw yesterday begins with a massive car crash, in which an SUV with flips and rolls down a hill outside Los Angeles. Inside the car are Detective Michael Britten (Isaacs), his wife Hannah (Laura Allen), and his son Rex (Dylan Minnette). We then see Michael and Hannah attending the funeral for their son, as Michael tells his therapist Dr. John Lee (B.D. Wong) that he is doing just fine with dealing with his loss. We see Britten head out to a murder scene, where he meets his newly promoted partner Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama), then he heads home to find his wife redecorating their whole house...except for the son's room. Dr. Lee asks what happens next. "I wake up," Britten replies.
We now find ourselves in the same house, only grayer and quieter. This is the reality where Rex survived but not Hannah. Michael is talking to another therapist, Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones), who asks him why he is wearing a rubber band around his wrist. Michael explains that he wears a green band because it's Rex's favorite color, and it reminds him that he's with his son. When he's with his wife, he wears a red rubber band. We then head to a home invasion crime scene, where Vega is still a uniformed cop and Michael's partner is instead Isaiah "Bird" Freeman (Steve Harris).
With this setup in place, the episode starts bouncing between realities, playing up just how indistinguishable the two are to Michael - as he observes, "It all feels completely real to me." The scenes with the two therapists really hammer home the duality. One of the therapists tells him, "I assure you, Detective Britten, this is not a dream," to which Michael sardonically replies, "That's exactly what the other shrink said." Both therapists try to convince him that their world is real and that the other is just an intense fantasy he's created as a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with his grief, and both manage to make some seriously convincing arguments, including one that involves reading the US Constitution.
Meanwhile, the scenes with Michael and his family focus on the tragic impossibility of their situation. Michael explains that he tried to tell his wife about the other world where their son Rex in the hopes that he could act as a sort of bridge between them, but he quickly realized that to her, their son was dead, and telling her about him was just torture. We see again and again how Michael's situation makes it impossible to deal with those who are trying to move on - his wife wants to sell their house because she can't deal with the empty room upstairs, but Michael can't leave because he's afraid it will break the link with his son's reality.
In the midst of all this, Britten has to solve his cases in both realities. This gets complicated when he realizes little details are starting to intermix between the two realities - one crime takes him to the address 611 Waverly Avenue, while the other takes him to spot 611 in the Waverly Parking Lot, while Dr. Lee argues the fact that he's searching for a missing child in one reality is his brain's way of forcing him to face up to his son's death. Ultimately, Britten is able to use information from each reality to solve the crimes in the other, which raises the suspicions of his partners - but both, for now, are willing to give Michael the benefit of the doubt.
A particularly tense scene comes after Dr. Evans nearly convinces Michael that Rex's reality is the correct one. The detective wakes up alone in his bedroom and, worse, is wearing no rubber band. He rushes around the house, desperately looking for any sign of either his wife or his son, and he seems terrified by the prospect that he's finally awoken in a reality in which both are gone, and he even cuts his hand open in a desperate attempt to prove that this is still real.
While that moment is resolved, it speaks to a problem Dr. Lee identifies - both realities are so intense that Britten never, ever gets to rest, and ultimately the strain of trying to juggle both existences may destroy his sanity. To this, Michael simply responds that he would do anything to see his family again, and "If the price of having them back is my sanity, I'll happily pay. If it means letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress." The episode ends on Hannah asking Michael whether he'll see Rex tonight, and asking him to tell their son that she loves him.
I'll be perfectly honest - I can't watch a show about a cop with a fragile grasp on a possibly fictitious reality and not think of Life on Mars. And, as a Life on Mars super-fan, I will say I am very, very excited to see whether Michael Britten's adventures can live up to those of Sam Tyler. So far...I'd say there's an excellent chance of that.
The pilot itself, even in a condensed version, is dense, compelling television, switching between not just two realities but three very different sorts of scenes: the emotional drama with Michael's family, the procedural cop show stuff, and the almost metaphysical discussions with his two therapists, in which both try in very different ways to help Michael puzzle out the nature of his situation. Dr. Lee is convinced this is just an incredibly elaborate coping mechanism, while Dr. Evans thinks this might be his mind giving him clues to what really happened on the night of the accident - Michael remembers nothing about what really happened, and there's some suggestion that he may have been drunk, which he completely refuses to believe.
The big question with any show like this is how it could possibly spin out such a complex premise into an entire series, a question that was also raised about Killen's Lone Star. (And Life on Mars, for that matter - even at sixteen episodes, it pretty much stretched its premise to the breaking point.) It's hard to say how a pilot like this will survive the transition to weekly television, but I'm never going to complain about a show that seems too sophisticated, too intelligent, and, well, too good.
That's a very nice problem for a show to have, and the brief panel after the footage presentation made it clear that the creative team was already thinking about all the different ways to explore the central premise. Kyle Killen said that Michael does think his double life is completely manageable, and they're going to explore whether that's really the case. Jason Isaacs pointed out that Michael never, ever sleeps - the second he falls asleep, he immediately jumps over to the other reality.
Howard Gordon said they're going to continue to look for different ways for the two realities to inform each other in terms of the procedural police show elements, and they're also going for a unique look and feel for the show - beyond the different color palettes used to indicate which reality Michael is currently in, they're also going to use production design, wardrobe, and scoring to create distinct aesthetics for the two worlds.
Awake is currently set to premiere on NBC as a mid-season replacement in early 2012.