Awake Episode 1.01: ‘Pilot’ Review

Posted on March 2, 2012


Awake Titles

Summary: A compelling, if heady, beginning to what could be a smart and touching series.
Rating: 8.5/10

** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the episode.**

Review Trailer
The quick skinny on the episode.

Returning to active duty as a homicide detective following a nasty car accident, Michael Britten is required to see regularly see a shrink to determine if he is fit. In speaking with Dr. Lee, he reveals that he when he goes to sleep in this reality, one in which his wife Hannah lived but his son Rex died in the crash, he wakes in another reality where Rex survived. In that reality, Britten meets with another shrink, Dr. Evans, and recounts the same precarious dilemma. Meanwhile, Britten gets a case in each reality, working with different partners in each. As he goes through his therapy sessions, each shrink trying to convince him that their reality is honest and the other is a “dream”, Britten begins to realize that clues to one crime lead to breaks in the crime in the opposite world. The confrontational Dr. Lee makes a strong argument for that world but Britten’s mind is thrown into a whirlpool when Dr. Evans crosses with an equally convincing proof of the “reality” of her world. Solving both crimes, Britten returns to both shrinks to tell them that if believing in both realities allows him to keep both his wife and son alive, then he chooses to never make any progress in his therapy.

Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.

What is reality?

KSiteTVIt’s a question we all struggle with in some regard, though usually in subtle, less tangible ways. It becomes more a question of what we can believe in, what we can trust. Can we take people at their word, actions at face value? Can we accept that our perception, while individual and inherently flawed, isn’t defunct? Can we believe that our emotional response to stimuli is honest or, more, be open to what these responses honestly mean?

These are concepts taken to the extreme in the new drama Awake, a story that asks the audience as much as its lead character, Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), which reality to believe. This smart and effective, though heady, pilot episode puts us at an immediate disadvantage, opening in medias res amidst a horrific car accident that sends Britten, his wife Hannah (Laura Allen), and teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette) tumbling down an embankment. We don’t know where we are, we don’t know how the accident occurred, and most importantly, we don’t know how it turns out.

We are introduced to two scenarios with one constant: Britten survived in both. (Or did he?) In one – we’ll call it the Red Band World; more on that in a bit – his wife lives and spends time redecorating their house to sell it as a way to outrun the grief. It is roughly 6 months since the accident and we are at the point where Hannah is trying to reconnect with her husband emotionally and drag him along into moving on. She quits her job and applies to two colleges, dropping all of this on Britten during a romantic dinner, after which she tries to bridge the issue of conceiving another child. It’s clear that as devastated as he is, his wife is far more affected and clearly in self-preserving compartmentalizing. She hasn’t even set foot in her son’s room since his funeral and it is untouched while everything else has changed.

In the other scenario – the Green Band World – Britten’s son has survived instead and the two lead a significantly strained relationship. Rex has given up a pursuit in football and taken up tennis, a sport his mother played with success. Attending an important match, Britten discovers that Rex has also found a surrogate maternal figure in Tara, an ex-tennis pro who knew Hannah and now coaches the teen. Tara, recognizing the family pain, tries to get Rex to reach out to his father to help them overcome their tensions.

Amongst the conflicting emotional realities, Britten has returned to work as a police homicide detective, teamed with different partners in each world: his veteran comrade, “Bird” (Steve Harris), in the Green World, working on the murders of a husband and wife at home that led to the abduction of a young girl; and in the Red World, Vega (Wilmer Valderrama), a rookie recently promoted from patrol officer more to babysit and spy on Britten for the brass, working on a series of street shootings by a suspect who dresses in disguises. Both characters appear in differing roles in opposite worlds, “Bird” being transferred away from Britten in the Red and Vega still on patrol in the Green.

Per condition of his reinstatement, Britten is required to see a shrink to determine his competency to remain on active duty. The series offers a nice jolt in providing the very different psychiatrists with distinct viewpoints and approaches in each world. Both determine the central conceit of the show: Unlike the film Sliding Doors where two divergent timelines play out simultaneously without contact, here, when Britten closes his eyes on one world, he opens them on the other. Instead of some sci-fi shift between dimensions, this approach further enforces the ambiguity of which world is real (or if both are or aren’t).

It’s a premise ripe for good (or bad) science fiction to be built upon but the series doesn’t come at it in the same fashion. This is a drama strictly focused on an emotionally fractured man trying to desperately hold on to the life, the reality, he once knew. At its center is a charged yet metered performance from Jason Isaacs – who is invested whole-hog in the show as both producer and star – a superb actor who was a bit underrated before becoming known as evil Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series of films. Isaacs, with his icy blue eyes, can certainly explode on-screen, but he keeps Britten contained and coiled, helping to ground the high concept. This gives the detective an air of complexity, even though the actor paints with but a few small strokes throughout the episode. With such a good actor, it will be interesting to see how Britten expands and grows with the show.

Not slouching, the production surrounds Isaacs with exceptional talent, particularly in his two shrinks. In the Red Band World – Britten has taken to wearing colored rubber bands on his wrist to distinguish which “reality” he’s in at the time; red for Hannah; green, Rex’s favorite color, for his son – the understated B.D. Wong commands a confident presence of clinical proficiency. Wong, who earned his psych stripes after years on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, perfectly embodies the sense of trying to add order to Britten’s particular dilemma by confronting and challenging all of his notions. Conversely, in the Green Band World, sensational stage veteran Cherry Jones, who dazzled us as President of the United States in the final two seasons of 24, offers a more empathetic, but no less reasoned, approach. There is an earthy feel to Jones that plays well with the gentle yet firm hand with which her character aids Britten.

By separating these two touchstones rather than sharing a single shrink, it offers a compelling dynamic – and an easy visual shortcut – to pit both worlds against each other and keep us guessing what is real. They both play a bit of an expository role in setting up the premise and the rules, but with a series of this sort, the production can be forgiven for spelling things out to get them out of the way for the narrative to move along more gracefully as the series ensues.

Strong performances from Harris, Allen and the others help to establish complete worlds and imbue everything with a sense of history that was thoroughly skipped over right in the beginning with Britten’s line of starting “right now”. The only shaky performer at the moment is Valderrama, though he acquitted himself well enough. The erstwhile “Handy Manny” might grow into the part well.

It’s a bit uncertain how the procedural aspect of the series is going to hold up over the long haul. While it gives some grist for Drs. Lee & Evans to mill, each saying the competing cases are tied to Britten’s psyche trying to work through its issues, it seems too convenient that each holds clues to help Britten solve the other. At some point, if this carries on, it’ll feel like a badly-scripted Shyamalan twist ending every week. As this will likely make up a large chunk of the series week in and week out, that prospect seems a bit daunting.

But as the show is primarily focused on Britten’s emotional response to the realities he’s faced with – as well as just how responsible he was for the accident – it makes for an original, engaging pilot and a series with a lot of promise.

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Posted in: Awake, Television