There are lots of successful shows with complicated premises. “Lost” kept viewers enticed over its six-season span despite fans having no idea what was really going on. “24” spent years attracting viewers with complex characters who switched between good and evil on a weekly basis. “Homeland” has largely been considered one of the most successful shows on television’s newest season.
So now that NBC has launched their new show, “Awake,” those fans who lean towards the complicated, twisting and turning plots can come out of their slumber for something new.
NBC chose to utilize the marketing strategy that was set in place for shows like “New Girl” and “Smash” by releasing the pilot of “Awake” online several weeks before tonight’s premiere. It’s a smart move, especially for a show as complicated as this. It gives the audience time to warm up to the premise before jumping on the bandwagon week after week.
If you can follow along here, then you can probably follow along with the brilliantly sharp pilot. The opening moments of “Awake” depict Detective Michael Britten and his wife Laura and son Rex in a brutal car accident. But the show doesn’t pick up right after this tragedy, instead it moves ahead in time and we see Britten has refigured himself in his lives.
That’s right, plural lives. In one life, Jason Isaacs (also known as Lucius Malfoy) portrays Britten in a world in which his wife survived and his son Rex was buried at the funeral.
In his other life, Britten stood by his son’s side watching as his wife is lowered into a grave.
He is living out two lives simultaneously. At this point in his story, Britten has already accepted that after a day spent with Laura he will go to sleep, open his eyes and wake up to find his son in the room across the hall. We skip over the discovery of this gift, which allows the audience to just accept it rather then endlessly question its validity.
The pilot does a good job of establishing key signifiers for each universe. Rex’s universe is represented as green, Laura’s is red. In the world where Rex is alive, Britten sees a kind and empathetic female therapist, Judith Evans (Cherry Jones). The male therapist, John Lee (B.D. Wong), whom Britten sees in the reality with his wife, is far more pushy and strong-handed.
The first episode, written and created by Kyle Killen and developed with Howard Gordon (“24” and “Homeland”), invites the audience to invest in the stories of the living characters. Yes, it is a show about grief, but it is a show about living with grief as opposed to letting it take your life away. And for those not pumped about character drama alone, the plot is nicely wrapped together with Britten conducting detective investigations in each world that somehow connect with each other, allowing him to make connections that others couldn’t. So, there you go, character, drama, procedure, mythology — it all seems to be there.
The question to ask is, which path will Killen and Gordon take? Following the pilot, will the show be a mythology-driven plot where we are constantly wondering why is he experiencing this? Who is to blame? Why can’t he remember the crash? Or will we take the road leading to a show that explores a character’s gift — if that’s what you want to call it — in terms of his everyday life and learning how to move on?
I’m in favor of a balance of the two, working on week-by-week cases and delving deeper into the characters while also trying to unravel the mystery underneath the surface.
But what worries me about a show such as this is that it leaves me wondering if the audience will stay alert enough throughout the pilot and subsequent episodes to facilitate a successful show.
I like shows that make you think. I like it when you get to the end of an episode and have to wrap your head around what’s going on. You have to actively use your imagination and reasoning to put yourself in the place of the characters. That is smart television.
I just hope the complexity of the show doesn’t deter audiences from what could be a truly compelling series. If I were you, I would stay awake for this one.
“Awake” premieres on NBC Thursday night at 10 p.m.
Rosenberg is a member of the class of 2012.