Pilot Review: NBC’s Awake

Last Thursday, NBC’s Awake created television waves as it introduced a new and thrilling concept and kept even the most skeptical of viewers riveted until the end. In a sea of freshman shows that promised endless thriller action and by now only offer predictable plot twists as you watch it on Hulu while cooking dinner the next evening (I have a particular quite Grimm disappointment in mind), Awake‘s pilot demanded you watch – and listen – to every single second, lest you miss one crucial bit of the psychological back-and-forth that only leaves you with more confusion than you started with.

By now, we all know the premise: Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, with an American accent) was in a car accident with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette), and one of them died – but he lives in two worlds that alternate when he falls asleep, where in each, one of them survived. In his wife’s reality, he wears a red rubber band on his wrist, and in his son’s, he wears a green one, to know where he is at all times. Both therapists (stellar performances by BD Wong and Cherry Jones) chalk it up to an elaborate coping mechanism in which his brain created an alternate universe that contains the events of the other What If, where either his son or his wife is still alive. However, we’re supposed to believe that Britten is actually transitioning between the two realities.

It all seems pretty innocuous until Britten starts making connections between the apparently separate cases in each reality. Where there was a 611 Waverly in the murdered-cabbie case, he was interested in parking spot #611 in the Waverly Parking Lot down by the docks in the murdered-family case. Obviously, the two cases are connected, which makes me think that either one is a dream, like they’re saying, or that there is something much more sinister going on. Britten solves both crimes using hints from the other reality, which makes basically everyone he talks to question his sanity after the wreck. Even though Britten is acting a little (or a lot) odd about his hunches, his partners in the investigation seem hesitant to take action against him, given that he does seem to be able to work effectively.

Dr. Lee says it makes sense that the details from reality would manifest in dreams, since we dream things we notice subconsciously earlier in life, and that there is no therapeutic value in trying to live in both worlds. This terrifies Britten, who says he will fight in every way to keep both his wife and his son and to stay in both worlds. I see this as the beginning of a snowball – it won’t be long before Britten’s life is spinning past his control, the lies and reality becoming too much for his brain to handle. Britten is living in a precarious equilibrium, afraid to shake up either of the worlds he lives in just to be sure that neither one will disappear. While his wife and son have to learn to live without each other, he’s unable to live without either of them, and if he isn’t careful, he might lose them both to his own

So, let’s get some theories rolling:

  • Britten is being set up and monitored. The crash was not an accident, and he is being manipulated, using science, to be the test subject for this new experiment, a la Fringe.
  • Britten is in a coma himself. His wife and son are both alive, but he drifts between realities while he is unconscious. This would be the most disappointing outcome, I think.
  • Rex is the one who survived. Hannah’s world is the dream, but in Britten’s subconscious, she’s the one he wished would have survived, so he’s carved out a faux reality starring her. I picked Rex because he’s frequently out in public, while Hannah’s reality is at home or just with Britten.
  • Both worlds are real, but are alternate universes through which Britten is jumping somehow.
It’s important to note that the show is dedicated to creating the firm idea of two separate realities. Rex’s reality is shown in cool tones, with Hannah’s in warm tones. This is what led me to the alternate universes theory, since it’s somewhat similar to what Fringe did in season three. I suspect that the two realities are, indeed, both realities, and at some point Britten is going to have to choose to keep one and obliterate the other – at least in his mind. We’ll see, I suppose.

Something I really appreciated about this episode is that the writing is smart. The therapists aren’t missing obvious loopholes and what they say really does make sense, which throws us off as much as it does Britten. When Dr. Lee is explaining how Britten’s life informs his dreams, I found myself nodding along, knowing that something else was going on but that at the same time, this all made a whole lot of sense. This gives me hope that this plot has been extremely well-researched and has a solid ending coming that won’t feel like a cop-out or refuse to answer the raised questions.

My major concern is that the concept is a little too high for NBC, and that this should be on cable. I’d love to see what HBO or AMC could do with something like this, without the restrictions. The pilot did seem to be holding back a bit, even as it pushed the envelope in almost every way. I could just see Awake being so much more, and I’m worried that it won’t get the chance to go there. However, I’ll hold back this judgment for a few more episodes, until we get a clearer idea of where we’re headed.

Great opening sequence, by the way. Very short, to the point, and with the added bonus of the Rorschach design. The only opener I can think of that’s at all similar is that of Supernatural, and these really aren’t even that similar at all.

Awake made decent ratings, scoring 6.2 million total viewers playing against reruns, but fell short of The Mentalist’s 8.9 million (clearly I need to start watching that show, if reruns are that high). I was hoping for a little higher, but with such minimal advertising until just before it aired, I’m not surprised. I predict its numbers will go up, though, since the pilot seemed to be pretty well-received by basically everyone who saw it. We just need to get it out of the 10 PM slot, really. The Firm crashed and burned – hard – and I firmly believe part of that was due to the timeslot. New night, new time – that’s what I propose. Thursday isn’t NBC’s night for drama, and they need to work on bulking up their comedies then, instead. It’s not like they have so many quality comedy shows that they’re having to put one on hiatus to bring another back. Oh, uh, wait, that’s exactly what they’re doing. But I digress.

Did you watch the Awake pilot? What did you think? Any theories yet?

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About Bailey

I'm a writer and a feminist. I read a lot of books and I watch a lot of television.

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