'Awake' Review: Is Jason Isaacs' NBC Cop Drama Worth Staying Up For?

All four episodes that NBC sent for review were quite competently made: They were well-paced, well-directed, well-acted, and a few featured well-earned twists I didn't see coming.
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I have a feeling that NBC doesn't want critics referring to "Lone Star" in their reviews of the promising new drama "Awake" (10 p.m. EST Thursday, NBC), but it's hard to resist at least a few comparisons to that short-lived 2010 show.

If you missed "Lone Star" -- and chances are you did, given that Fox only aired it twice -- it was an ambitious character drama that embraced ambiguity and featured an unusual protagonist. "Lone Star" wasn't perfect, but it was very engaging and its attempt to embrace complexity within the confines of a broadcast network drama was admirable. It goes without saying that I was willing to stick with the show through its creative evolution, had that been an option.

I bring up "Lone Star" not just because "Awake" was created by the same writer -- Kyle Killen -- but because the new NBC drama is also not easily defined and tries to cover a lot of bases in every episode.

The good news is that the unusually ambitious "Awake" succeeds at several of the things it's attempting, and star Jason Isaacs grounds the drama with a charismatic yet subtle performance. I have a few misgivings about the show -- I do wonder how "Awake" will work in the long term -- but in the near term, I'm happy to stick with this unusual cop show to see where it goes.

Having said all that, "Awake" is a show that is visibly trying to figure out what it wants to be in its first few episodes, and there are a lot of moving parts and intersecting agendas for Killen and fellow executive producer Howard Gordon ("Homeland") to keep track of. Hence the show's short production hiatus last year, during which the show's writers attempted to get a handle on "Awake's" overall direction.

Still, NBC understandably felt so strongly about the show that the network posted the pilot episode of "Awake" online weeks ago. It was a wise idea, not just because the pilot is good, because experiencing the story first-hand is likely more enjoyable than reading a description of it. I tried to front-load this review with praise, because once you read a bare-bones summary of "Awake's" premise, you might run away. Don't. What follows might sound complex, but it's not off-puttingly so. Plus, the show's creators and directors are scrupulous (almost to a fault) when it comes to keeping the audience aware of what's going on in "Awake's" dual story lines.

If you haven't seen the pilot yet, here's what "Awake" is about: Isaacs plays Los Angeles detective Michael Britten, who is in a terrible car crash with his family; after that event, he spends his waking moments shifting between two different realities. In one reality, his wife died and his teenage son is still alive, and Det. Isaiah "Bird" Freeman (Steve Harris) is his partner. In the other reality, Michael and his wife are trying to move past the death of their son, and Detective Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) is his partner. Michael also has two different therapists (played by B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones) who gently -- and sometimes not so gently -- suggest that the alternating worlds are nothing more than coping mechanisms gone awry. In order to psychologically recover from his trauma, they tell him, he needs to dump one of the illusions.

But which one?

That unthinkable choice is the lynchpin of the show's two mythologies: the mechanical mythology, if you will, and the emotional mythology. The former is where "Awake" runs into trouble, and the latter is what sets the new drama apart.

All four episodes that NBC sent for review were quite competently made: They were well-paced, well-directed, well-acted, and a few featured well-earned twists I didn't see coming. But it became a little tiresome that neither of Michael's partners knew about his time-switching secret. Those of us in the audience understand why he's lying to both men about his secret lives -- if he told his partners that he sometimes got clues about supposedly unrelated cases in alternate realities, he'd probably be both fired and committed. But the concealment leads to a number of similar scenes that center on the lack of trust between the partners.

The sessions with Michael's shrinks were useful at first, because they laid out the ground rules of Michael's dual existences, and Jones and Wong have engaging presences ("Awake" is a very well cast show). Unfortunately, those sessions soon became repetitive discussions of how and why Michael won't (or can't) move past his alternate-reality "delusions," and given how many other things "Awake" is trying to do, it's hard to see the utility of those scenes after a certain point.

There are echoes of "24" in a couple of episodes (Isaacs can be quite driven and even forbidding when a case requires that approach), and the overarching story even has a few "X-Files" overtones, none of which is surprising, given that Gordon wrote for both of those shows. But the show on Gordon's resume that I really hope influences "Awake" is Showtime's "Homeland," which also featured a stark choice that became more interesting the more the show delved deeply into its characters' hopes, fears and pain.

That's exactly what the third episode of "Awake" does, and I'm happy to say that it made me tear up a little.

You can be sure that NBC won't be promoting that episodes with chirpy taglines about grieving and the redemptive pain of memories. But the theme of the episode -- how we shape our realities to match what we want to believe, rather than to what is in front of us or what is too painful to face -- is nicely integrated into the case of the week and some emotional story lines. There are also some powerful character moments from Laura Allen, who plays Michael's wife, Hannah, and from Dylan Minnette, who plays his son Rex.

I can't imagine how hard it is to come up with stories that satisfy those who want close-ended cop dramas and those looking for a psychologically challenging character piece, but that's the challenge that "Awake" has set itself, and we'll just see if the show can go the distance and build on this unusual premise. Though stories are not always "symmetrical" (i.e., Michael doesn't always spend equal amounts of time in each realm), the show also has a whole lot of characters and story lines to service. There are essentially two families, two cop threads, two therapists and a boss with a mysterious agenda (Laura Innes) in one of the realities. So "Awake" has a lot of ground to cover within every episode, on top of the question at the heart of the show: Is it actually better for everyone if Michael (and "Awake" as a story) chooses one reality over the other?

If we're lucky, and if "Awake's" embrace of ambiguity and complexity make the drama a hit (hey, I can dream, can't I?), I would imagine that Michael's choice and the mechanics of the shifting between worlds will come to matter less, and the people who will be most affected by that choice will come to matter more. I sometimes wondered what the cable version of this show would be -- maybe there would be less focus on dueling cop cases and more on the characters' dilemmas -- but maybe this show would have taken a while to find itself no matter where it debuted.

In any event, even if it doesn't always function smoothly, "Awake" is worth staying up for.

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