NBC had enough faith in its new drama "Awake," premiering tonight at 10pm, that the network put the pilot (directed by David Slade of "Hard Candy" and "Twilight: Eclipse") up on Hulu, YouTube and iTunes two weeks early to drum up attention. And for scope alone, the episode deserves it -- created by Kyle Killen, who was also responsible for the acclaimed, ill-fated Fox series "Lone Star," "Awake" is centered around a Los Angeles detective named Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) who's slowly putting his life back together after a car accident resulted in the death of one of his family members.
Whether it was his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) or his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) who passed is a more complicated matter. Michael is, somehow, splitting his time between two universes, one in which Hannah survived, and one in which Rex did. In both he's gone back to work, though he's been given different partners (Wilmer Valderrama and Steve Harris). And in both he has a shrink (BD Wong and Cherry Jones) who listens to his strange situation and explains, as would any sensible person convinced of his or her own existence, that the other reality is clearly just a dream or coping mechanism Michael's created to deal with his own trauma.
So is Michael a man dreaming he's a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he's a man? Or are they both dead, and he's just delusional? The most intriguing angle in "Awake" is that neither world is more real than the other, neither clearly the one that needs to be overcome. (For anyone who remembers it, the setup can't help but recall the justifiably maligned 2000 Demi Moore vehicle "Passion of Mind," though rather than base its drama around discovering which world is false "Awake" happily seems content to accept both at face value.)
The show assigns a subtle color coding to the two realities, one warmer-toned and the other given a cool filter, making it easier to distinguish which Michael is in when he's not directly dealing with Hannah's desire to move away from a house filled with memories, or Rex's grieving process. And despite what you'd think would be certain larger questions that would have to arise with Michael's dual life, he's grounded and communicative about his experiences and rather than be curious would prefer to keep soldiering on through anything that will allow him to continue seeing both his wife and kid, even separately.
But can you make a show with this kind of magical angle and not delve into explanations of how or why? "Awake," as a stand-alone first episode, presents a poignant fantasy about mourning in which you never have to learn to let go of a lost loved one, just close your eyes and wake up in a world in which he or she is still alive. But future episodes are going to have to either lean heavier on the crime-solving -- which, even with the implication that information in one world is good in the other, is the least interesting aspect of the show (which has the potential to become the procedural with the most elaborate gimmick) -- or explore the limits of the show's scenario and come up with non-ridiculous mythology, no easy task.
That it's hard to predict the direction in which "Awake" will go (and I've only seen the pilot so far) is, however, awfully refreshing, as is the suggestion that the show's going to delve into metaphysical etiquette issues like whether it's okay to start dating in the reality in which you're single if your wife is still alive in another one. Awkward.