New drama will keep you 'Awake'

Sunday , March 04, 2012 - 8:03 AM

Ellen Gray

When broadcast networks' executives sleep, they probably dream of series like NBC's "Awake," a cop show with a premise unusual enough to generate buzz but not so out there that people who like cop shows wouldn't recognize it while channel-surfing.

Of course, if those suits work at NBC, they might also dream of a better time slot than 9 p.m. Thursdays, which has evolved since the days of "ER" from the hottest real estate in TV to a place where "Prime Suspect" and "The Firm" couldn't get arrested.

But even if the neighborhood's not what it once was, "Awake" is the kind of property worth going a little out of your way for: a high-concept drama that packs an emotional punch while, yes, solving crimes.

The very blue-eyed Jason Isaacs ("Brotherhood," "Harry Potter") stars as Los Angeles police detective Michael Britten, the survivor of a car crash that's killed either his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen of "Terriers") or their son Rex (Dylan Minnette of "Saving Grace").

Or possibly both.

In Britten's world, bisected by a sleep-wake cycle that's either going to make him TV's hardest-working cop or drive him over the edge, he's living or dreaming two separate existences: One in which Hannah survived, one in which Rex did.

In both cases, he's a working detective.

In one life, Steve Harris ("The Practice") plays his veteran partner.



In the other, Wilmer Valderrama, barely recognizable from his days on "That '70s Show," is the rookie assigned to ride with him.

Neither quite understands Britten's newfound ability to use tiny details from cases in one existence to help solve cases in the other, though Britten's dueling therapists -- played by Cherry Jones and BD Wong -- may have their theories.

There's a hint at the end of the second episode -- and then dropped in the subsequent two hours -- of the much dreaded/much longed-for overarching conspiracy, but, honestly, I'd be happy enough with this cast and this concept to simply wander along for a bit, ignoring the trail of bread crumbs and focusing on the lengths one man might go to hold onto those he loves.

"Awake" was created by Kyle Killen, whose Fox drama "Lone Star" -- also about a man living a double life -- was both critically acclaimed and quickly canceled.

The con man at the heart of "Lone Star" "was somebody that you couldn't decide if you liked or hated, and I think that Britten's dilemma is something that we're not only sympathetic for, but somehow we want him to win," said Killen when I asked him recently what he'd learned from that show.

In Britten's case, "We're all behind him. You know, the fact that these two therapists and all these two worlds and everybody is telling him that he can only have one or the other, we want him to have both."

The same goes for "Awake": It may look sometimes as if shows have to choose between being smart or being popular, but I can't help but root for those at least trying to be both.

Bottom line: High-concept drama seeks to have its mysteries and solve them, too.

Pass, watch in real time or DVR?: Real time. "The Mentalist" will wait.

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