Awake: TV Review

Lewis Jacobs/NBC
Kyle Killen's complex drama on NBC is already in danger of tripping over its plotlines.

Jason Isaacs stars in Kyle Killen's complex drama about a man who lives in dueling realities.

This story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Despite exceptional buzz from several critics, NBC's drama Awake — about a detective who doesn't know whether he's asleep or awake because he's living different lives in each world — always seems to carry a caveat with the praise: It's too complicated for the masses.

See, detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs from the Harry Potter films and Brotherhood) was in a horrific car crash with his wife and son. In one world, his wife is alive, but his son is dead. In the other world, the opposite is true. Awake's conceit is that the viewer, like Michael, doesn't know which is real. Michael is seeing two separate shrinks. He's got two different partners on the job. Other people appear in both worlds. Michael wears different-colored rubber bands on his wrist so he can figure out which world he has just woken up in. The pilot cuts between these worlds quickly.

No way around it — Awake is confusing.

It could be that the sound of America changing channels will be audible somewhere near the 20-minute mark, but if people stay with it, what they'll find are exceptional performances, some truly fine writing and a premise, by virtue of being complicated, that could unspool some really interesting plotlines.

VIDEO: NBC Releases Full 'Awake' Pilot Two Weeks Before Premiere

Better yet, the second episode, which welcomes Laura Innes to the show, drops a real bomb in the final minutes, adding even more complexity. If viewers manage to get that far, the twist could hook them (an argument could be made that the twist should have been in the pilot).

Unfortunately, the real trouble for Awake starts in the third episode, which completely and utterly ignores the twist. Then, when it absolutely must be addressed in episode four, we get a serial killer storyline instead — and still no mention of the twist.

That's not good for a show that could live or die on the thin dedication of a small band of loyalists. Otherwise, series creator Kyle Killen has another Lone Star on his hands.

Of course, the notion of a one-and-done retake on history is probably not lost on Killen, a very talented writer snakebit by life in network television. This is a man who most definitely needs to make a cable series.

It might be a moot point after the above disclaimers, but Isaacs is, not surprisingly, wonderful in this series. He perfectly conveys a man struggling with two horrible options. Michael is smart enough to know that if one of the shrinks gets him to "wake up," he'll lose his wife (Laura Allen, Terriers) or son (Dylan Minnette). But Michael doesn't have the wherewithal to suss out the reality of either world. In some ways, the best moments of Awake involve its take on psychotherapy as B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones are superb as the therapists, and the dialogue truly challenges and supports the notion that Michael's situation can be easily explained but also is unique.

Q&A: 'Awake' Creator Revisits Complexities Of Dual Realities And 'Lone Star' Woes

How unique? He's solving crimes in both worlds. Better yet, he sometimes gets clues in one world that help him in the other. Even when Awake is confusing, it's never boring. Steve Harris (The Practice) and Wilmer Valderrama (That '70s Show) are compelling as Michael's partners. Both are worried/suspicious that Michael's not all right. And they might have different agendas for that concern. Of course, it's hard to feel completely bad for Michael because in one world he's still got Allen, who's crazy gorgeous, and in the other, the similarly lovely Michaela McManus plays his son's tennis instructor, who's getting closer to him.

It could be, however, that none of this matters. Ignoring the second-episode reveal is a plotting mistake that might annoy viewers who are game enough to stay through the pilot. If more bail after that feint, Killen can wake up and start working on his cable series.

Airdate: 10 p.m. Thursday, March 1 (NBC)

Creator: Kyle Killen

Cast: Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Steve Harris, Cherry Jones