Friday, 2 March 2012

Review: AWAKE, 1.1 – "Pilot"

Friday, 2 March 2012

Having had his fingers burned with Lone Star (the critically-adored show about a bigamist Fox axed after two episodes), writer Kyle Killen sticks to the idea of a man leading a double-life, but commercialises it by adding cops and a SF/fantasy bedrock. It's a Life On Mars-esque drama dealing with slippery dreams/parallel universes, replacing nostalgia with the heartache of familial bereavement. Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) suffers the loss of wife Hannah (Laura Allen) in a car accident he and his teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette) survived, only to discover sleep transports him to an alternate world where his son died and his wife survived...

Which reality is real and which is false? Is Britten dead and in purgatory? Is he maybe in a coma following the car accident and dreaming two incorrect outcomes? Is he travelling between parallel universes during his sleep? These big questions aren't likely to be answered soon, which can be a frustration with TV shows of this type. Awake's pilot feels like it would have made a better movie, which goes for almost every high-concept TV show the US tends to come up with these days, but I hope Killen has a few surprises up his sleeve to keep audiences hooked. That in itself can be a struggle in the US system, where TV drama eats many hours of scripts every year, and the long-term goal of Awake is to keep Britten's situation engaging and emotionally rewarding for five years. Is that even possible?

It helps that the onus of this pilot wasn't on the existential mystery at the heart of it—nicely discussed via therapy sessions with Dr Judith Evans (24's Cherry Jones), or Dr John Lee (B.D Wong), depending on which reality Britten's in—but instead two crimes: the kidnapping of a young girl and a murder. Even without Awake's selling point, this was a decent enough crime procedural, although not astonishingly so. The direction from British director David Slade (Hard Candy) was really great, with some fantastic production design backing it up, although the idea to give each reality a red or green tinge (signifying the colour of rubber bands Britten wears on his wrist in memory of Hannah or Rex) wasn't noticeable enough. There were definitely occasions where it became hard to understand which reality we were looking at, until a memorable change made an appearance (like the different partners Britten works with on cases in each universe). Unlike Fringe, which also deals with alternate universes, the differences in each of Awake's worlds are subtle, but I don't envisage it taking long before we get a grip on things.

It almost goes without saying that Britain's own Isaacs is really good in the lead, utilising an American accent that sounds perfect to my Limey ear (although I find Andrew Lincoln's Southern drawl acceptable on The Walking Dead, and I'm in the minority there). Isaacs is due a similar breakout to Damian Lewis over in the States, and I'm hoping this show will manage to secure him regular trips to the Golden Globes and Emmy's. He's the kind of actor who will deliver the goods if the material's good, so let's just hope Awake doesn't slowly lose its way. There have already been concerns from the production, which was recently shutdown to allow the writers time to get a firm grip on where the story's going, but I'm not too concerned. I don't think it's strange they encountered some problems, because unless there's a way to make the rabbit hole take unexpected diversions, Awake may suffer because it's going to be repeating the same points every other week. Still, there's already the suggestion that the two realities are "bleeding" through, or perhaps converging, so that's quite an interesting wrinkle to pursue.

Overall, Awake's a great pilot in mainstream network terms, and I didn't come away wishing this was on cable—for a change. Although I'm hoping NBC realise it makes more sense to give shows like this an annual 13-episode commitment, instead of forcing the writers into a backbreaking schedule to hammer out 24 hours. Season 1 of Awake is luckily a mid-season replacement, so at least we know it won't outstay its welcome or start to swim in circles too soon. And if the ratings nosedive because it sheds the curious and only retains the sci-fi fans, I'm hopeful Killen can bring things to a quick resolution. But let's not grieve for something before it's dead, because Awake deserves to be a hit and I'm interested to see where the creative team take things.


  • Dylan Minnette played Matthew Fox's son in the sixth season of Lost, which coincidentally also dealt with an alternate timeline.
  • Hello to Jason Isaacs.
written by Kyle Killen / directed by David Slade / 1 March 2012 / NBC