NBC’s most adventurous pilot premiered last night after a few weeks of sneaks. So how did the “two dream lives” drama fare in its debut?
Let’s bitch it out…
Because the pilot was widely available before the episode actually aired last night, it will be interesting to see how the show is received. Online reviews from critics have been cautiously optimistic: they see a great deal of potential, adore the actors, love the risk the show takes and think the pilot (directed by feature director David Slade) establishes the premise with a great deal of style and execution. They are concerned, however, about the show’s ability to maintain its challenging premise moving forward.
Having only seen the pilot, I will echo their sentiments, but I don’t have the same trepidation. I was an early advocate of creator Kyle Killen’s last show, the gorgeous and intriguing Lonestar, which had a similar logline (man living two lives). Where Lonestar struck some as distasteful because the protagonist was a con artist with two wives, Awake is more palatable and intriguing. Instead of wading into morally murky territory, Killen’s new show is interested in exploring the life of a man who – despite personal tragedy – is allowed to continue living with his family, albeit not in the conventional sense. The fact that it’s compelling, filled with great actors and appropriately mature and challenging is music to my ears.
Before we go further: a cheat sheet!
- Rex (son)
- Dr. Judith Evans (shrink)
- Det. Isaiah “Bird” Freeman (partner)
- Hannah (wife)
- Dr. John Lee (shrink)
- Det. Efrem Vega (partner)
So what did we learn in the pilot? Jason Isaacs is Michael Britten, a man who may or may not have had a drinking related car accident that resulted in the death of his wife (red life) or his son (green life). To ensure both he (and the viewers) know where he is, Michael wears a different coloured wrist band and the worlds are tinged with the appropriate colour. Each time Michael closes his eyes, he awakens to his other life: in one, wife Hannah (Laura Allen) grieves for her lost son by re-painting the house; in the other, son Rex (Dylan Minnette) takes up tennis, the preferred sport of his deceased mother.
In each life, Michael has a different shrink (Green’s Cherry Jones and Red’s BD Wong), both of whom naturally insist that they are real and the other is a coping mechanism. And because audiences need a framework on which to hang the emotionally compelling journey of a man living two lives, there is also a procedural element. As a police officer Michael has cases to investigate. The suggestion is that clues and similarities from the unique cases will inform each other. In the pilot this is embodied in a recurring address (611 Waverly), as well as villain (a red headed killer). Michael also has two different partners: Steve Harris’ Det. Isaiah “Bird” Freeman assists with a case involving a kidnapped girl in Green, while Wilmer Valderrama’s Detective Efrem Vega works the cabbie shooting case in Red. This is interesting because unlike the other characters, these partners are glimpsed in the background of the alternate life. Vega is not a detective in Green (simply another policeman), but he is seen briefly when he says hello to Michael while working the kidnapping crime scene. In Red, meanwhile, although Bird is not working with Michael, he warns him that Vega is using him to propel his career.
Going into the show, I was familiar with the concept, so I was prepared for the back and forth switching. Unlike other shows (*cough Ringer cough*), Awake isn’t interested in spoon-feeding its audience. If you’re watching, it assumes that you are paying attention (ie: there are no subtitles indicating whether we are in Red or Green). The result may be too challenging for casual viewers, which is something many fans have voiced concerns about. This is no ordinary cop show, and it is unlike anything else on television, so hopefully viewers will recognize the talent and the masterful execution and get on board. To naysayers looking for escapism in their television, I can reassure you that the two lives is not an obstacle, rather that the show actually respects your intelligence and assumes you can follow along.
I, for one, am more than willing to go along for that ride.
- Some critics fear that the dual therapists will become redundant since they frequently voice the same advice. I can definitely understand this concern, but because I like both actors, I enjoy the therapy sessions. As Alan Sepinwall noted in his review, I like that the show is set some time after this phenomenon began because Michael has already accepted these exceptional circumstances. For me, the therapists contribute to this and are valuable because they are the only ones in whom Michael confides. The therapy sessions provide insight into how Michael processes his situation.
- It’s not quite true that Michael only confides in the therapists. He has also inferred to Hannah that he sees Rex when he sleeps (she becomes upset that he is “having those dreams again”), but by the end of the pilot, she appears to find comfort in the idea and asks Michael to tell Rex that she loves him.
- Is it just me, or is there some kind of spark between Michael and Rex’s tennis coach, Tara (Michaela McManus)? I hope that I misread mild flirtation when concern or empathy was intended, especially after finding out that there’s a 20 year gap between Isaacs and McManus!
- Finally, while both Hannah and Rex are still grieving (rightly so), I’m already tired of the petulant son who doesn’t have a strong bond with his father angle between Michael and Rex. It might not have even been an issue had Minette not already played this role on the final season of Lost, but he did and we’ve seen it. Fingers crossed that awkward hug (suggested by Tara) turns into a deeper and more nuanced relationship in the future.
What did you think, readers? Do you have a preference for one life more than the other? Do you think the recurring therapist sessions, or complimentary police cases will become stale? And do care about resolving which (if either) life is ‘real’ or are you content to continue going back and forth? Let us know below!
Awake airs on NBC Thursdays at 10pm EST.