NBC's "Awake" (10 tonight, WPXI) begins with a simple premise: After the family car he's driving tumbles over a cliff, Los Angeles police Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, "Brotherhood") wakes up to discover his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen, "Terries"), has died but his son, Rex (Dylan Minnette), survived the accident. When Britten goes to sleep and wakes up again, he's in an alternate reality where his wife is alive and his son is dead.
Which is real? Is one scenario a dream? Britten ultimately decides it doesn't matter; he won't give up on either, choosing to live part time in each world to keep his loved ones alive.
Awash in grief in its first few episodes, "Awake" offers a fascinating look at competing realities that makes it one of the 2011-12 TV season's most ambitious dramas. It's the kind of show viewers must pay attention to -- smart TV that's worth watching, bringing to mind another Is-it-a-dream-or-real? series, "Life on Mars."
But can "Awake" survive on NBC? That might be a dream scenario itself.
"Awake" is executive produced by Howard Gordon ("Homeland," "24") and was created by Kyle Killen, the talented writer responsible for Fox's two-and-done 2010 flop "Lone Star." Mr. Killen, who wrote the first two "Awake" episodes, recently tweeted, "Only takes three aired episodes to crush our old record, folks!"
While the "Awake" premise is simple, the execution can sometimes be more convoluted. It takes several episodes before the show's writers find a way of bringing clarity to these two realities and which universe viewers are seeing Britten in at any one time (or maybe it just took me that long to get a better handle on it).
The show quickly announces it won't just be a procedural with Britten tracking two criminal cases in two different universes with two different partners (Steve Harris from "The Practice" in one and Wilmer Valderrama from "That '70s Show" in the other). Clues from each universe inform the case in the other. "Awake" introduces a conspiracy overlay in episode two. It comes off as a little tacked on and is ignored entirely in episode three before a character -- other than Britten's two shrinks -- learns of his two-reality state in episode four.
Those shrinks prove to be an important aspect of the emotional component of "Awake." Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones, "24") always seems to be more positive (sometimes making excuses for Britten) but in Britten's other reality Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong, "Law & Order: SVU") offers more negative feedback (often assigning blame). It's in scenes with the therapists that Britten explores all the implications of his dual-world existence and his post-grief relationships with his wife (in one reality) and his son (in the other).
"Awake" takes the concept of grief seriously, intelligently portraying Hannah's sadness over losing her son and Rex's dismay over losing his mother. Britten seems less grief-stricken because he hasn't lost either one -- as long as his two realities continue to alternate every time he wakes up.
The "Awake" producers make some concessions to silly TV tropes -- Britten's son gets kidnapped in the third episode -- but generally they do their best to walk a fine line, attempting to execute the show in as uncomplicated a way as possible so less devoted viewers keep watching while rewarding obsessive fans with small steps forward in the exploration of Britten's condition.
Will "Awake" succeed? It doesn't matter. "Awake" deserves to be a success. It's certainly a TV series worth staying awake to watch.
A version of this story first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published March 1, 2012 5:00 AM