'Awake' is one of the best dramas on television

'Awake,' starring 'Harry Potter' actor Jason Isaacs, deftly handles themes of grief without going over-the-top.

Joel Ryan/STF/AP
'Awake' features a cast, including Jason Isaacs (r.) and Wilmer Valderrama (l.), that makes each character three-dimensional and sympathetic.

The topic of loss can be something of a hard sell to audiences.  In addition to the different feelings loss and mourning may evoke in all of us, it has the tendency to bog the viewer down with an ever-present cue to the frame of mind they should be in. Some dramas have handled the concept very well – albeit in small doses – while others ride the lowest common denominator all the way to ratings glory. The key, it seems, is to utilize the concept of death and loss, and from it build a convincing story that holds some value beyond reminding us of the eventuality we all face. Thankfully, NBC’s newest drama, Awake, manages such a feat.

By now you likely know the concept: Los Angeles police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) wakes from a horrific car wreck to find himself split between two realities – one where his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) survived, and one where his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) lived. As he alternates back and forth between the two planes, he must face the notion that although both of his loved ones still exist on a part-time basis for him, Britten’s wife and son are left in a world where the other no longer lives. Awake is, at once, heart-wrenching and compelling, and it is easily one of the best dramas on television, right now.

The project comes from screenwriter Kyle Killen, whose last two projects, FOX’s Lone Star and The Beaver, garnered him a hefty dose of critical acclaim, even though neither project managed to find a large audience. Notably, when it comes to Awake, certain thematic elements regarding duality and the idea of separate, but connected lives led by the series’ protagonist, are shared with the con man of Killen’s Lone Star. So, if nothing else, its clear that Killen is interested in revisiting themes that he obviously didn’t get to explore the first time around.

Right off the bat, though, Awake feels like a completely different animal – one that is more mature and interested in examining itself through thought-provoking ideas, which it is capable of since it is not constrained by the burden of perpetuating a con. Instead, Awake has the realm of the unknown to play in, and it does so by leaving many questions unanswered, yet still manages to tell a thoughtful and complete story in the series’ pilot.

For Britten, his seemingly fractured world is the only way in which the life he had prior to the accident can still exist, and he sees it as a better alternative to the permanent loss his wife and child must endure. This reluctance to see his two realities as either a dream or coping mechanism brought about by a combination of grief and guilt vexes his two therapists, Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong) and Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones).

And this is where the series cleverly utilizes its concept in an original fashion. While Britten accepts his situation by going on with his life(s), working with his partners, Det. Isaiah Freeman (Steve Harris) or Det. Efram Vega (Wilmer Valderama), and coming home to either his wife or his child, neither of his therapists can accept this. Lee and Evans both implore Britten to reject the other’s hypothesis, and accept them as the true reality. But their patient is not convinced that one or the other is necessarily false – he is of the mind that the two are real, and his moving between them makes him whole.

The intriguing thing is that Britten does not need any convincing, and maybe it’s everyone else who can’t handle the thought that they may not exist. Each therapist is adamant in providing irrefutable proof that the other reality does not and cannot be real, but the evidence they provide is really just to confirm their reality is not a construct of Det. Britten’s troubled mind.

Naturally, the episode (and perhaps the series, too) is rife with symbolism that serves to inform which reality Britten is in, but also hints at larger questions. There is the significance of the colors red and green, representing Hannah and Rex, respectively, and those specific colors pop up in each reality with enough frequency to suggest something is amiss. Additionally, there is the sense that an ambiguous force is subtly dictating events.

Several times throughout the pilot, Isaacs refers to “they,” which is obviously his superiors, but like the colors it is mentioned enough to suggest another element. They, who are they? There is a feeling of persons unknown who are pulling the strings and dictating, with subtle gestures, the events in Britten’ life. They = his superiors, but perhaps they = something more. They want to know if Britten is fit for duty, and they are peppering Det. Vega with questions about Britten’s capacity to do his job.

There is also the question of the accident, and Britten’s elevated blood alcohol level. Is Britten responsible for his son/wife’s death? He cannot remember the events that led to the accident, so that mystery is yet to be solved, but like Det. Freeman said, solved and fixed are not the same thing. This could prove simply to be a byproduct of the intrigue surrounding the nature of the program, so it will be interesting to see if it manifests in later episodes.

In regards to the pilot, which was directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Awake is beautifully realized in both performance and style. Utilizing his cinematographer from Days and Hard Candy, Jo Willems (who coincidentally also shot the pilot for FOX’s Touch), Slade manages to craft two separate, but equally believable realities. Given that many key scenes consist of only dialogue between Isaacs and either B.D. Wong or Cherry Jones, Slade still manages to pull an entertaining and swift moving hour of television from Killen’s remarkable script.

The most intriguing aspect of Awake, however, is the cast. Killen and executive producer Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24) have assembled a group of actors committed to portraying interesting characters, not caricatures, like so many other programs. Isaacs is unquestionably persuasive as Britten, which, given the diversity of his past film credits, really shows off a natural ability to embody a myriad of roles and make them all feel at once familiar yet original.

High marks as well to Laura Allen and Dylan Minnette, who are primarily tasked with being signifiers of grief, but still manage to make Hannah and Rex into actual people. Allen in particular, takes the notion of coping mechanisms and, instead of making them a point of direct conflict, guides them into potential worry down the line. Redecorating, enrolling in school, moving, getting pregnant…Hannah is moving a mile a minute, and her trajectory is going to put her at odds with Britten’s need to maintain his duality. Yet through it all, Allen convincingly portrays Hannah with a sense of sorrow and intense desire to move on.

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In the end, the viewer comes to want the existence of two realities to be as real as Britten does. The moment when the two realities cross over actually comes off as an interesting way to engage the viewer in the procedural aspect of Britten’s job, but also forces Britten to make more of his situation than simply coping with the loss of his loved ones. Again, it is the hint of something more, driving the purpose of this duality that comes to light in the articles of importance as they relate to each case Britten is investigating.

One of the best things about Awake is the way it expertly avoids many of the clichés that are so often attached to dramas of this nature. Those grieving aren’t prone to violent outburst or flights of recklessness that have become stock Hollywood examples of dealing with a loss. Instead, most of the characters, and especially Britten, choose to internalize the grief and cope by listening to what is said to them, and choosing to respond with contemplation, as opposed to a flat out counter. It is key that Britten listens to his therapists, even though he may disagree, otherwise the interplay between them, which is arguably the cornerstone of this story, will not work. Thankfully, Awake handles that interaction skillfully – specifically when Dr. Evans tells Britten to communicate to Dr. Lee that the whole situation is not as simple as he makes it sound. And that’s just it: Awake is not as simple as it may sound, and that is the beauty of this incredibly gripping show.

Kevin Yeoman blogs at Screen Rant.

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