THE SHOW | NBC’s Awake (Thursdays at 10/9c, premiering March 1; watch pilot here)
THE COMPETITION | CBS’ The Mentalist, ABC’s Private Practice and Scandal (premiering April 5), FX’s Archer/Unsupervised
THE CAST | Jason Isaacs (Brotherhood), Laura Allen (Terriers), Wilmer Valderrama (That ’70s Show) and BD Wong (SVU)… Jason Isaacs, Dylan Minnette (Lost), Steve Harris (The Practice), Michaela McManus (Vampire Diaries) and Cherry Jones (24)… and Laura Innes (ER).
THE SET-UP | Isaacs is Michael Britten, a police detective who in the wake of a tragic car accident finds himself toggling between two realities: one where his wife Hannah (played by Allen) perished in the crash, and another where it was their son Rex (Minnette) who died. In sessions with his LAPD-assigned therapist (played alternately by Wong and Jones), Britten details this dual existence yet declines to accept the diagnosis that the other “world” is but a dream-slash-coping mechanism. Valderrama and Harris play Britten’s respective detective partners in his “red” (where Hannah’s alive) and “green” realities, Innes their police captain; McManus is Rex’s tennis coach.
THE PROS | Awake, as you might surmise, is not the easiest show to casually follow, but to make the effort is damn rewarding. The pilot, which is just this side of brilliant, economically lays the foundation for the dual narrative — including the added wrinkle of how Britten’s homicide investigations in either reality beget clues for the other. (For example, a parking space number translates into a critical street address.) Among the cast, Isaacs is excellent, rendering a character who is at once besotted by loss and yet quietly satisfied to have stumbled upon a way to hold onto those he lost; similarly, Allen does well as a wife and mother struggling to move on yet hampered by her own forms of denial. Minnette at first seems saddled with TV’s favorite tired trope, The Angry Teen, but a pair of breakdowns (in the pilot and then Episode 3) flesh out the lad nicely.
Of the first episodes screened, the pilot is tightly plotted and solid as a rock, No. 3 delivers a visceral and thrilling white-knuckle race against time, and the one that will air fifth addresses head-on a conspicuous question — namely, for how long can Britten pass off the otherworldly clues he gleans as mere “hunches”? — as well as introduces an element that threatens to unravel one of Michael’s existences.
THE CONS | Episode 2, while a serviceable follow-up, serves mainly to plant the seed for a larger mythology that at first blush risks seeming a tad contrived — though in the long run, it might give the series needed momentum. In the early going, conversations that Britten has with his shrinks (à la “You need to let go of your ‘dream’ reality”) and his partners (“You mind explaining this hunch of yours?”) grow a bit repetitive: fortunately, the therapy sessions are later used more sparingly and weave in other topics. Until you commit to memory a “Who’s who?” of the two realities, it can be easy to “lose your place,” though the show provides cues in the form of a red/green rubber band Michael wears on one wrist and an overall warmer visual tone to scenes in the “red” world.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE | While Awake, when first reported on, was likened to Inception, I’d say Fringe is a slightly better comparison — it’s as if Peter Bishop switched universes each time he fell asleep and woke up. As such this is a show you must pay attention to, and in a world where inane fare developed to appeal to the LCD attracts the big crowds, I can’t help but worry about this smart and stellar drama’s prospects in a time slot that already this season has played host to two short-lived freshman NBC series. All we can do is hope for the best, and patience on the Peacock’s part.