Awake: Season 1, Episode 1
Kyle Killen has a problem. He wrote last season's critically beloved, and quickly cancelled Lone Star, which had an incredible pilot and a premise that was completely unsustainable in the long term. Now, a year and a half later, he returns with Awake, a very good pilot that will likely find it completely impossible to sustain the level of creativity, humor, and pathos that it contains over the course of even one full television season, much less several. This is a pilot that felt like the first 45 minutes of a very good movie, or perhaps even the first episode of a British series (where the seasons usually run 6 or 7 episodes and series last only a few seasons). A lot about Awake reminds me of the incredibly clever British series Life on Mars, which of course draws me almost immediately to thoughts of its comparatively hacky and life-less American remake. If Awake were being introduced as a short run or a mini-series, I would be ecstatic for the next episode. As it stands, I can only wonder how long the show will be able to bear its own weight.
But none of that bothered me even slightly during the best moments of this pilot which is, let's not mince words, a great piece of television. The premise of the show is incredibly intriguing: Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, who is very good here) is in a car accident. He knows that either his wife (Laura Allen) or his son (Dylan Minnette) survived the accident. The trouble is, he can't tell which, because when he goes to sleep at night, he wakes up in a world where the other is alive. In one version of reality, his wife survived, and pushes him to move on from their son's death, while he deals with a new partner (Wilmer Valderama) and a new therapist (Cherry Jones, clearly having a lot of fun). In the other, his son survived and has taken up tennis to honor his mother, he continues to work with his partner (Steve Harris), and he sees a different, more confrontational therapist (BD Wong).
This is an incredibly interesting premise, and the pilot has a lot of fun with the way these worlds can interact with each other. The two therapists seem to be picking at each other's work and trying to out think the other as much as they are trying to heal Britten, and the cases he works on in both realities seem to interrelate in ways that are mysterious and intriguing (an address and a hair color overlap in very significant ways, though why they overlap remains, obviously, a mystery). In both worlds, the people in his life are moving on, while Britten himself stays willfully stuck. This is an evocative idea, and the show deals with problems of grief and an unwillingness to confront hard truths in fascinating ways.
That isn't even mentioning the excellent direction by David Slade, who uses quick cuts and blurry shots to transfer between the worlds, and differs the color scheme in each to make it easier to keep up (this is even flagged by the red rubber band Michael wears when with his wife and the green one he wears when with his son, a touch that would feel obvious if it wasn't executed so smoothly in practice). The pacing of shots and scenes, and the transitions between them do so much work to carry across the pilot's feeling of aggrieved stasis, it is hard to imagine coming back to this world without Slade as a visual guide (a problem that can plague a show with a well known pilot director who does not carry on a relationship with the show).
Everything here is the stuff of a haunting, emotionally complex character study. Even the procedural elements the show introduces (which I can only imagine will grow more central in weeks to come, seeing as there is only so much mystery that can be spun out of "which reality is the actual one?") are handled well and made to stick out due to the lingering feeling that Michael Britten is a man plagued by grief and willfully refusing to move on from those he's lost.
Awake is a very good pilot, the sort of thing that reminds me not to write off network television (and this in a world where The Good Wife is the only current network drama I am even watching), but it is also a show that will almost certainly disappoint me in weeks to come. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong about this. I would love to discover that Killen learned from Lone Star and actually has some idea of how to keep this thing on the rails in the weeks and even years to come. But I imagine this whole house of cards he built will come tumbling down in the next few weeks, and that when we talk about Awake in months to come, it will be about how a great pilot does not a great show make. I can hope for the best in weeks to come, but deep down, in a place Michael Britten is denying or ignoring, I will know I'm dreaming.
-I won't be covering Awake on a weekly basis, both because I already cover two (and, with Community's incipient return, soon three) shows on Thursdays, and because I am reasonably certain this show will fall apart within a few weeks. If I'm wrong, and if it proves worth talking about, you can expect a Modest Proposal on how the rest of the season turns out.
-"I have no desire to ever make progress." That is a really great line, and it totally fits with the character and his emotional state. Unfortunately, it also sounds like a death knell for any type of serialized narrative this show hopes to develop.