I just watched the pilot episode of ABC's new show Awake starring Jason Isaacs, who some will better know as the Blue-Eyed Satan of The Patriot and the Harry Potter films.
I read a few reviews of the first episode, and those in the know are comparing it to Veronica Mars' pitch-perfect pilot. I would have to agree. It hints at complexity and great things to come. I'm hooked.
The short of the story is this: Detective Michael Britten gets into a car accident with his family, a wife and son. After the accident, his reality splits into two: in one reality, his wife has died, and in the other reality his son has died. The shift between the worlds happens when he falls asleep. Upon waking, he's in the other reality for the day. (He keeps track with colored rubber bands on his wrists, we the audience keep track by the presence of the wife or son and by the cool or warm tones of the images.)
The story has pathos written all over it, but Isaacs' performance sublimates it until a moment of panic when he loses his shit. That's when you realize what is really at stake for this character. He's grieving, but in a way that is impossible to communicate to others. In fact, trying to talk to others may get him into deep trouble, increasing the social costs of his "condition" or driving him further into madness and confusion.
Which brings us to his dueling therapists, both with radically different techniques for dealing with the same patient. They both believe, logically, that their reality is the one in which he is awake and that the other is a vivid dream. One therapist is gently trying to convince him of "reality", and the other is more aggressive, claiming that Britten's denial of reality is an attempt to escape from the guilt of his culpability for his son's death.
I think what is interesting in the pilot is how the level of threat to Britten's psyche and career varies between the two worlds. In one he is being forced to go to therapy--with the scare-apist and his partner is reassigned, meaning that he is teamed up with a rookie (Wilmer Valderrama!) who is also probably a spy for the police department. When Britten tries to discuss his son's life with his wife, she understandably can't handle it, though he dreams of acting as a bridge between both worlds. But in the wife's reality, she is also trying to make him move away from the house that is shared in both worlds, and make other radical changes that may make his son disappear forever. In his son's reality, Britten is finally connecting with his child, still with his trusted long-time work partner, and has the nice therapist (Cherry Jones). But the stakes are the same in both worlds: accepting one reality forces him to lose a loved one.
And that he cannot handle. He prefers blissful ignorance over cold explanations, and this pilot is so well-written that I completely empathize with him. I hope the show doesn't make the mistake of trying to get us to care about the overarching mystery of his condition when it's really the character and the intertwining of his parallel worlds that is interesting. (I haven't even mentioned the procedural aspect of the show, where clues in one world are significant to cases in another world. That'll make your head spin.)
In that, it reminds me of Life on Mars, which screwed up by explaining its trippyness instead of realizing that the mystery isn't what keeps us there: it's the people. Also, usually when a show relies to heavily on a mystery it fails to deliver in the end, letting down its characters (Battlestar Galactica, I'm looking at you).
Here's hoping Awake lives up to its promise!