By Curt Wagner
6:12 PM CST, February 29, 2012
NBC's provocative new drama, "Awake," begins simply enough. Det. Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and their 15-year-old son Rex (Dylan Minnette) are involved in a car crash and one of them dies.
Then things get a little confusing, but don't give up on "Awake" (9 p.m. March 1, NBC; 3.5 stars out of 4). After the crash, Britten finds himself moving between alternate lives. In one, his wife survives the wreck. When Michael goes to sleep in that existence, he awakens in another in which Rex is the one who lives.
Neither Britten nor viewers can tell which life is real, and which one is a very lucid dream.
In one life, Britten's partnered with rookie Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama), while in the other, veteran Det. Isaiah Freeman (Steve Harris) is his longtime partner. Neither partner can figure out how Britten finds seemingly tiny details to solve their cases. In one existence that information may be minor, but in the other it is much more important.
Britten's dueling shrinks--Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) and Dr. Lee (BD Wong)--offer him theories about why he's created the two realities in his mind and how he's carrying clues from one existence to the other. But Britten refuses to resolve his dilemma, because he can't bear to know which loved one lived and which one died.
Easy peasy, right? NBC may have a difficult time selling this complex but completely rewarding drama to the masses. But I hope people tune in.
As confusing as it sounds, the show's creator, Kyle Killen, has found a way to move smoothly between Britten's two worlds. Isaacs is the perfect guide for viewers; his touching, solid work grounds everything. He shows viewers what lengths one man in pain might go to hold onto those he loves. And it's heartbreaking.
If not for the fine work of all involved, "Awake" might have descended into a "Matrix"-like maze filled with deep, mind-bending questions of which most viewers would likely tire. Without the alternate reality "gimmick," for lack of a better term, it would be just another police procedural. After all, Britten and his partners investigate parallel cases every week.
But Killen and Co. don't stop with just those two concepts. Episode 2 hints at a larger conspiracy, while the fourth episode adds a challenging nemesis who seems to understand the hells Britten is living. As good as the pilot is, "Awake" improves with each outing.
Well acted and smartly written, "Awake" works as an intellectual puzzler, emotional family drama and case-of-the-week procedural.
It would be a hit on cable. But can NBC pull it off? Let's hope that isn't a dream.
Watch the first 7 minutes of "Awake" in the player above.
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