Awake is that rarity of rarities, a TV series you haven’t seen before. Created by Kyle Killen, it stars Jason Isaacs as Mike Britten, a police detective who loses his son, or maybe his wife, in a car accident. The maybe is key. The story unfolds simultaneously along two realities. In one reality, Mike lost his wife, in the other his son. One reality might be a dream, the other real, but Mike doesn’t know which one. He has therapists in both realities: Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) and Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong), both of whom assure Mike that their reality is the “real” one.
If you’re not confused now, believe me, you will be, but it’s a good kind of confusion: deliberate and intricately patterned, designed to leave you feeling adrift, unsure whom or what to believe. The parallel realities are conveyed not by a thuddingly literal back-and-forth rhythm — dead son reality/dead wife reality/dead son reality — but through intricate editing that intertwines the two. In effect, this show is telling two versions of the same story simultaneously and using the character of Mike Britten as a way to bridge them. It’s playing the “What if?” game that we all play with our own lives and with history, asking what would happen to the rest of a timeline if you changed one key event. But in this case, the two events (crash kills son, crash kills wife) are given equal weight. That means we can’t divine whether one reality is a dream or if they’re both real.
There are intimations of conspiracy or — well, I was about to type science-fiction, but the premiere gives no indication that the show is going to head in a Lost type of direction, externalize the weirdness and turn it into a gigantic contraption of a mystery. Not yet, anyway. But there’s some weirdness going on in one of Mike’s murder investigations, which pivots on a surveillance camera image of a mysterious man in a cowboy hat who turns so that the camera can get a good look at his face. There’s something faintly David Lynchian about that shot, shades of the man behind the Dumpster in Mulholland Drive and Bob behind the sofa on Twin Peaks.
This is a world built on dream logic. At its eeriest — and I can’t even believe I’m writing this about an NBC drama — Awake reminded me of a glossy, utterly mainstream, but adventurously edited feature film, something that would be labeled “art house” if it didn’t have stars and production values: The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Limey, Memento, Inception. This is not the kind of drama you can half-watch while posting on Facebook or folding laundry. It’s puzzle-as-spectacle, and it asks you to commit.
The only really frustrating thing about it is that you can feel the producers and writers holding back, as if they’re terrified that their formal experiments, however tame in the context of movie history, are just too much for NBC viewers tuning in Thursday nights after watching a block of comedies, and that it’s a miracle that a show like this made it to air at all, so they’d better not push their luck. I wish the hero wasn’t a cop and that we didn’t have to suffer through the same old tired trope of cops swapping deadpan observations at gory crime scenes shot in desaturated hues. The cop stuff feels like it could be happening in any other NBC cop show; I kept expecting Prime Suspect’s Maria Bello to show up in that cute hat. But given the originality on display, and the venue, those are minor complaints. Because I’ve been disappointed so many times by pilots that failed to do justice to a brilliant premise, I don’t want to get too excited about or invested in Awake, but I’m excited about it. It’s on my Wait and See list, with a hopeful exclamation point.