If you were alternating between two realities — one in which your spouse is dead but your child is alive, and the other the exact opposite — which one do you choose to believe is real? This is the central question in NBC’s new series “Awake,” which finally hit television last Thursday after being available on Hulu for two weeks.
Thursdays at 10 p.m.
The pilot opens with a literal bang: a tragic car crash involving detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”), his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, “Terriers”) and their son Rex (Dylan Minnette, “Lost”). During Michael’s waking hours, he is confronted by two alternate realities: one in which he and his wife Hannah attempt to rebuild their lives after the loss of their son, and the other in which he attempts to reconnect with Rex after losing the woman they both loved. While simultaneously solving separate police cases in each reality, Britten consciously tries to decipher which world is true, but finds eerie, overlapping details connecting both realms.
Visually, the series is conducted in two shades: Warmer tones depict the reality in which Hannah is alive, while cooler tones depict the world in which Rex is alive. Michael wears a red rubber band in his wife’s reality and a green one in his son’s. Colors play a large role in helping Michael — as well as the audience — keep track of which world he is immersed in. The shading scheme is beneficial in separating the two worlds, allowing the audience to more easily follow the complicated environment of “Awake.”
The two realities are remarkably different, from the people within them to the police cases Michael undertakes. Yet he begins to find intersecting threads between the two, including overlapping numbers, colors and faces. Clues that are relevant in one reality somehow resurface as integral to the investigation in the other. This feature of storytelling is complex, but “Awake” manages to pull it off deftly.
If nothing else, “Awake” is both well-casted and well-acted. Isaac’s performance as Britten is real and heartbreaking, illustrating grief and sadness for his lost loved ones as well as optimism for new beginnings. In both worlds, he effortlessly portrays the various emotions on the spectrum, convincing us of his lingering hurt as well as his fleeting happiness.
We also meet Hannah and Rex and get a multi-dimensional look into their existences. Hannah is an excellent tennis player who finds it too painful to enter their late son’s room, while Rex is a brooding teenager who has recently taken up tennis as a way to feel closer to his dead mother.
The secondary characters are also well developed. We meet Michael’s squad partners and his two therapists in their respective existences and see a good measure of their personalities. Detective Isaiah “Bird” Freeman (Steve Harris, “Friday Night Lights”) is Michael’s long-time partner, present in his wife’s reality, who senses that something is off with Michael, while Detective Efrem Vega (Wilder Valderrama, “That ’70s Show”), present in his son’s world, is a rookie cop assigned to Michael after the accident. His two therapists (BD Wong, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”; Cherry Jones, “24”) also occupy different roles, with one being firm and persistent and the other being laid-back and relaxed. Though these characterizations are only one-dimensional and surface-level, there is need for stagnant figures in this complicated premise.
“Awake” hints at operating on a case-of-the-week basis instead of a season-long arc, which could potentially hinder points of in-depth development. Arguably, the show would be better served if a single case in both worlds were worked at week by week, as it would allow for more interconnectedness and crossover between the two universes.
But it’s easy to forgive the very few mistakes “Awake” makes because the concept is so imaginative and new. Though it is complex, it promises to be one of the best new shows of 2012.