SDCC 2011: Review, ‘Awake’ Pilot Is Riveting

ALTAnother year, another show about detectives trying to solve murder cases.

Even with grisly cases and genre “twists,” the abundance of Law & Order/CSI iterations and clones has devolved the mystery drama into a tired ritual. At the end of the day, whether the premise involves unraveling a 30-year-old murder case or racing against time to discover a killer’s identity, the shows end up mirroring one another—much to the dismay of those watching them.

That’s why NBC’s Awake, which screened its pilot this afternoon at San Diego Comic-Con, is such a startling, refreshing and riveting experience. In a world where network television consistently pales in comparison to the edginess of AMC, FX, HBO, Showtime and the like, NBC has stepped up their game and delivered a take on the crime procedural that invests in its characters and turns a gimmick into a powerful plot device. Based on the pilot alone, the network has found a show that can compete with the big boys. Whether it will stick around or go the way of short-lived, innovative fare like Boomtown or Raines is anyone’s guess.

Awake stars Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) as Michael Britten, a detective who survives a horrible car crash only to find his reality seemingly split in two. Britten first regains consciousness to find that his wife has survived the crash, but his son has been killed. Never fun. But when he goes to sleep, he reawakens to another consciousness, one where his son has survived but his wife perished in the accident.

In the pilot, Britten copes with his losses and crumbling mental state by seeking the aid of two therapists (played by B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones), both trying to convince the struggling detective that his opposing alternate realities are figments of his imagination. The big problem: each life he’s living has its own set of crimes, own set of clues and own set of hurdles to overcome. At some point, Britten finds himself forced to abandon his therapists advice and confront the demands of each reality, at the risk that both may have real consequences.

ALTAwake doesn’t skimp on the mind-bending aspects of its premise, with the swift script putting Jason Isaacs through the emotional grinder. Britten uses color wristbands to remember which reality he’s woken up in, but when one suddenly goes missing, he thrashes out in panic at the idea of being lost in his own house. When he’s on the job, Britten toils over clues that appear to be crossing over and connecting between realities, two separate, distinct cases sharing numbers, symbols and characteristics with one another. Unfortunately, solving crimes using evidence from other planes of existence doesn’t always fly with police, so Britten finds himself forced to keep his partners Isaiah “Bird” Freeman (Steve Harris, The Practice) and Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama, That ’70s Show) in the dark.

Whether Awake can maintain its brainy cohesion, tense atmosphere and emotional core while balancing it with week-to-week double mysteries is the only wild card, but as a stand alone episode its a exhilarating piece of television. Director David Slade (30 Days of Night, Twilight: Eclipse) and writer Kyle Killan (Lone Star) knock the first episode out of the park, cramming in tons of detail and plenty of plot threads to be drawn out over the series first season. Unlike recent LOST knock-offs (or even some of J.J. Abrams’ recent shows), Awake doesn’t depend on his mysteries to sustain drama, but instead briefly lingers on them when the time is right. Really, the show’s all about Isaacs’ weathered, displaced Britten, a character the creators forcefully push through his challenging new life.

Or should I say, lives.

Awake premieres mid-season, sometime in 2012.