Although many will focus on its “Sliding Doors” element — a guy ping-ponging between two realities, one in which his son has died; the other, his wife — the better comparison for NBC’s “Awake” is “Life on Mars,” and the harsh reality of how its U.S. voyage crashed and burned. Jason Isaacs is an appealing leading man in a show that feels trapped in its own duality. While superior to “The Firm” and more interesting than “Prime Suspect” — the season’s previous casualties in its Thursday slot — initial episodes don’t bode well for a long run, in this world or another.
Shedding his accent, Isaacs (perhaps best known for the “Harry Potter” movies, but also terrific in the Showtime series “Brotherhood”) plays Michael Britten, a detective who was in a devastating car accident with his wife (Laura Allen) and teenage son (Dylan Minnette). Michael oscillates between two fatal alternatives, with different professional partners (Steve Harris, Wilmer Valderrama) and department-mandated shrinks (Cherry Jones, BD Wong), with the latter each telling him the other is merely part of an elaborate dream he’s using to process his ordeal.
What sounds like a daring concept is quickly undercut by attempts to wrap the show in a police-procedural format. Emotional questions of grief and dealing with loss are thus sidelined as the show attempts to operate as “Law & Order: Parallel Universe Division.” Seriously, can’t anyone undergoing a reality crisis be an accountant or something?
Created by Kyle Killen (whose “Lone Star” met an unjustly premature end) and produced with Howard Gordon (“Homeland,” “24”), “Awake” would seem to derive intrigue from which world is “real,” and which imagined. But Michael makes clear in the pilot he doesn’t care — informing his therapists he has no desire to “make progress” — concluding that his current situation, however disorienting, is preferable to being denied either loved one entirely.
In “The Twilight Zone” fashion, Michael’s worlds do collide, as clues from the cases he’s investigating each week bleed into each other. At its core, though, the entire concept is something of a downer — morbidly dwelling on who’s dead and who isn’t — while undermining incentives for the audience to invest in either scenario.
Even if resolution can’t happen right away — it’s a TV series, after all — “Awake” exhibits no sense of an end game. As if mindful of these limitations, the second episode drops clues meant to tantalize the audience. Yet after watching four installments, it appears anything approaching clarity will have to be indefinitely deferred — potentially too long to provide Michael or viewers much satisfaction.
The steely-eyed Isaacs is a compelling presence — a good thing, since he’s in almost every scene — and deftly conveys Michael’s pain. Beyond him, the narrowly drawn supporting roles underutilize a first-rate cast.
More practically, just as ABC’s “Life on Mars” crumbled under similar inertia, “Awake” looks hard-pressed to alter NBC’s 10 o’clock fortunes, even with diminished expectations due to the demise of previous occupants and a weakening Thursday comedy roster.
Perhaps foremost, “Awake” is itself a kind of illusion — creating the appearance of risk, before retreating to more conventional environs. So is it a tormented dream? A dark conspiracy? A spiritual timeshare?
Whatever the answer, wake me when it’s over.