We’re all about comics here at Panels on Pages, but a geek cannot live on comics alone. Outside the Longbox is our chance to spotlight something outside our typical four-color realm – be it movies, music, TV or whatever.
In the ratings-hungry world of network television, the midseason replacement show has had a relatively lousy track record when it comes to clicking with audiences and staying on the air. For every Seinfeld that comes down the pipeline, there are at least five Perfect Couples. It was this spotty history that made me extremely skeptical of NBC’s newest action drama Awake when it was first advertised. The overall concept intrigued me, but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough to make me care enough about it to stick with it throughout an entire season or, ideally, several seasons. Regardless, I checked out the pilot on Hulu a few days after its March 1st premiere and was completely blown away by how well Awake combines several different familiar TV genres to make a show that is action-packed, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally touching all at the same time. Much like Lost did, Awake combines a fascinating concept with a compelling human story that draws viewers in and leaves them eager to watch more.
The protagonist of Awake is police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who at the beginning of the pilot episode is returning to work after surviving a horrible car crash. In the pilot’s brilliant first few minutes, we find out that whenever Britten goes to sleep, he switches between two divergent realities, one in which only his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) survived the crash and another in which only his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) survived. In both realities, Britten is required by his job to see a different psychiatrist (played by B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones) to help him deal with his loss, both of whom tell him that their respective reality is the real world. Each reality finds him working on different cases and paired with different partners (Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama), and it isn’t too long before subtle details from one reality start to bleed into the other, which gives him a remarkable amount of insight that allows him to not only solve the majority of his cases but also makes him aware of what he needs to do in order to connect with his wife and son.
The main aspect of Awake that sets it apart from most of the recent unsuccessful high-concept shows like Terra Nova and Flash Forward is that it focuses almost exclusively on one central character and seems to be letting the plot slowly develop on its own without trying to force it on the viewer. The first two episodes do a great job of making us care about Britten and his plight, and his interactions with Hannah and Rex portray the issue of grief and recovery in a surprisingly poignant and genuine light. This human element prevents the show from becoming just another “case of the week” police procedural. The subtle differences in the lighting and color palette between the two realities do a brilliant job in keeping the viewer up to speed as to which reality Britten is in at any given moment, using visual cues to help explain something that could potentially get very tedious if done any other way. The murder cases so far have also been very compelling as well, and the banter between Britten and his partners is very well-written. I’m still not sold on Wilmer Valderrama playing a homicide detective, but I’m hoping that his character gets developed more as the season progresses.
After establishing the premise very effectively in the pilot and raising the question of which reality is the “real” one, the second episode ends with a plot twist that establishes a possible conspiracy within Britten’s precinct that may have inadvertently caused his condition in the first place. I was hooked on Awake right after watching the pilot, and this slowly evolving plot will all but guarantee that this show will be a priority until its first season ends. In the three episodes that have aired so far, creator Kyle Killen has crafted a compelling and enriching story from an incredibly cool concept and has helped liven up the mostly-drab landscape of network TV. Awake airs on NBC on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. EST and is highly recommended. 4.5 out of 5 Mystery Packages.