Preview: Awake (NBC) 1×1

Two parallel worlds say hello to Jason Isaacs


In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, NBC. Starts March 1
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Hello to Jason Isaacs! Welcome back to the blog.

Yes, Jason Isaacs has himself a new US TV show, this time on network TV instead of cable. In it, rather than a member of the Rhode Island Irish mafia, he’s a cop.

No, don’t turn off. The cop bit is the least interesting part.

He’s a cop, but he’s a cop who has a car accident in which his wife dies, leaving him to look after his teenage son.

Except when he goes to sleep, he wakes up in seemingly a parallel world in which his son died and his wife survived. And when he goes to sleep at the end of the day, he returns to the first reality.

I say reality because he doesn’t know which one’s real and which one’s a dream. They both seem equally real. Both his therapists want to help him, but will he give up on his wife or his son, assuming he can? Because for some reasons, the cases he investigates in the two realities are linked.

Here’s the first seven minutes of it for you to enjoy:

“Awake” is an intriguing drama about a detective (Jason Isaacs, “Harry Potter,” “Brotherhood”) who finds he is leading an arduous double life that defies reality.

Following a tragic car accident, detective Michael Britten finds himself awake in two separate realities: one where his teen son, Rex (Dylan Minnette, “Saving Grace”), died in the crash and his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen, “Terriers”), survived and another where Hannah has perished, leaving Michael and Rex to pick up the pieces. In order to keep both of his loved ones alive, Michael begins living in two dueling realities, churning up confusion. In one reality, Michael and his wife debate having another child, while in the other, his son Rex is turning to his tennis coach, Tara (Michaela McManus, “The Vampire Diaries”), to fill the void from the loss of his mother.

Trying to regain some normalcy, Michael returns to solving crimes in both worlds with the help of two different partners, Detective Isaiah “Bird” Freeman (Steve Harris, “The Practice”) and Detective Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama, “That ’70s Show”). Michael is assigned a different case in each reality and quickly discovers that his dual existence is actually a powerful tool. He begins to solve impossible cases by using his two realties to gain unique perspectives and link clues that cross over from world to world.

Helping Michael to navigate his two realities are his bureau-assigned therapists Dr. Evans (Emmy Award-winner Cherry Jones, “24”) and Dr. Lee (BD Wong, NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”). While both therapists work to untangle his two worlds, Michael has no interest in proving either one is false. But when memories of the accident begin to haunt him, he is forced to confront the truth about what really happened the night of the crash.

Is it any good?
You know, it actually is. But it’s the kind of good that flourishes on cable but is likely to die a horrible fiery death on Thursday nights on NBC.

The cop side of things is, as you might expect, the least interesting aspect of the show. It’s cleverly done cop stuff but there’s nothing really to mark it out as different beyond the odd coincidences and clues that link the two realities. The fact there are different partners for Isaacs in both realities doesn’t help either, since there’s half as much time for each guy to get any characterisation time or to be shown to be much beyond a helper monkey.

Where the show works is as a story about loss and grieving. Supposing you’d lost someone you loved – would you sacrifice another and endure the grief just to be reunited? Because that’s the show’s essential dilemma. Should Isaacs halt his own grieving process and make it harder for his loved ones to cope, just so he can have both members of his family alive, even if they’re also dead in another reality? He gets both his loved ones this way but both of them also have to be dead. It’s actually a very interesting emotional question that the show is exploring.

Most of the best scenes involve one of his therapists, trying to disabuse Isaacs of his beliefs and proving to him conclusively that the other reality must be unreal. But there are other moments, such as when Isaacs wakes up to find his wife missing in the reality in which she should be alive and he loses track of whether he’s asleep, dreaming or losing his mind, that grab the attention as well. Then there’s the fact he’s told his wife about his dreams and what his son is doing in them and it’s making it harder for her to adjust, so should he keep things from her?

As of yet, the crossing over of realities hasn’t been properly exploited, either through the cases or through the therapists passing each other messages for example. But that will surely come soon. Whether we’ll ever get an explanation for what’s happening, whether it be parallel universes, Isaacs is really in an asylum or it’s all a strange homage to Deadly Dream, I can’t say either but I’m not sure it really matters – yet. This is a show where the MacGuffin serves the story, rather than the story serving the MacGuffin, which is as it’s supposed to be (I’m staring at you here, Alcatraz).

Isaacs is, of course, great although his US accent seems just ever so slightly off (but then I think that about Hugh Laurie’s in House) and the supporting cast is fine, although therapists 24‘s Cherry Jones and BD Wong do stand out. The constant switching between realities can be a little confusing.

But this is thoughtful, intelligent drama that rarely takes the predictable option. I predict… cancellation after a season. It is NBC after all.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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