There is a lot of baggage that comes with the premiere of Awake. Its creator, Kyle Killen, also guided FOX’s Lone Star to the airwaves last year. That series’ pilot is one of my favorite of all-time, so of course, Lone Star was canceled after just two episodes because of terrible ratings. I also really enjoyed The Beaver, the little-seen Mel Gibson film that Killen penned. Despite all that unfortunate failure, Killen came right back last developmental season with one of, if not the, most buzzed-about pilot script. Mix in some tremendous casting and David Slade behind the camera and Awake (previously REM) became my number one must-see pilot. So it makes perfect sense that NBC held it for midseason. Then the production took a break to figure out where the story was headed. Thanks to the failure of The Firm, Awake is finally here and despite all the baggage, I have to say: It was worth the wait.
Killen is clearly compelled by stories about characters with dueling personalities or lives and what was more of an external, obvious challenge in Lone Star becomes an internal struggle in Awake. In the aftermath of a terrible car accident, Detective Michael Britten finds himself seemingly living two lives: One where his wife Hannah (played by Terriers’ Laura Allen) has died and his son Rex (Dylan Minnette, most notably remembered as Jack’s flash-sideways son on Lost) survives and another where the opposite is true. To help Michael work through his issues, he’s been assigned shrinks in both realities (B.D. Wong in Hannah’s world, Cherry Jones in Rex’s), but as we see in the pilot, Michael’s two “worlds” begin to converge, at least as far as his detective work is concerned.
Describing Awake’s premise feels like second-nature to someone like me who’s been so obsessed with it from the beginning, but I can only imagine how it plays to the untrained and unknowing eye. NBC’s done an okay job in promoting the premise in a clear, concise way. Yet, there’s no way around this: Awake, in pilot form, is complex and perhaps too complex for the stereotypical broadcast network viewer.
However, I have to give Killen, Slade and hands-on producer Howard Gordon a heck of a lot of credit because they work with the actors to make that complex premise seem less intimidating fairly quickly. Killen made a great choice in starting the story sometime after the accident and avoiding a full-blown premise pilot and the police procedural story engine could help the story be more overtly consumable for the CSI: fans out there. Not to mention that Killen is a strong writer: Lone Star allowed its leads to express more just with their physicality, but even though Awake is more wordy (which comes with the story complexity), very little of the dialogue comes off as clunky or stupid. Most importantly, Killen’s script keeps the focus on Britten’s emotional state and his relationships with not only Hannah and Rex, but his dueling partners (Wilmer Valderamma and Steve Harris). The police procedure story is solid, but not integral (more on this momentarily).
It’s impossible to say who had the most say in developing it, but I’m going to assume that director David Slade played a big role in creating the distinct visual palette and the separate color schemes (warm reds for Hannah’s world, cool greens for Rex’s). The color structure is not only great to look at, but it plays an integral role in developing both the atmosphere and narrative. I posed this question on Twitter after the airing, but is it possible that this pilot features the best use of color ever? I’ve obviously not seen everything, but I can’t think of anything that did it better. And even generally speaking, this pilot is beautiful. It has a wonderful texture to it that feels lived-in; it’s not overly slick. Slade likely won’t direct any more episodes and it might be difficult to keep up with this episode’s level of visual flare, but there’s surely a framework in place to make it work. Please.
The performances here are similarly tremendous. Jason Isaacs is most recognizable as a villain (thanks, Harry Potter), but he immediately sinks into Michael that all those previous feelings are gone. As I mentioned, this pilot is wordier than Lone Star, but Isaacs has no trouble delivering exposition. He has great chemistry with everyone in the cast and brings something slightly different to each scene, depending on who he’s interacting with. This is an extremely sad, dark story, but Isaac’s performance keeps it from becoming depressing. Allen is just as natural and refreshing as she was in Terriers, B.D. Wong was born to delivering lines and lines of medical dialogue, Cherry Jones is surprisingly warm and lord, even Valderamma fits well into this world.
All of these elements help create a pilot that I could gush about for days. At this stage, Awake is simply enthralling. Despite the complexity and despite the dark nature of the story, the pilot immediately sucks you into the world and gets you invested in Michael’s struggle. In these opening 43 minutes, you never really worry about how any of this is actually possible, if it is real or if there are larger questions at play – you don’t care. The only thing you care about is Michael’s emotional connection to these two people that he has lost and what sort of complications arise internally because of that. By the final 12 or so minutes, when Michael’s flimsy structure teeters over, crisis erupts and he eventually decides to ignore admitting that either world is real or fake, the catharsis is too powerful to worry about plot mechanizations. It’s nearly impossible to not be bowled over by Michael’s choice to hang on for just a little bit longer. Who wouldn’t?
This is my favorite pilot of the season, unsurprisingly joining Lone Star as one of my favorite recent pilots (on broadcast or cable). The writing, the performances, the colors, it all works to shape what is a glorious expression of emotion and identity complications. And unlike so many pilots in contemporary television, Awake’s opening salvo tells one fairly complete story, give or take any resolution to the primary “mystery,” if you can even call it that.
Of course, it is impossible to ignore what Awake could be in the future. There is an obvious challenge with sustaining this kind of difficult narrative conceit and that’s assuming that viewers tune in (fingers crossed!). Balancing the character relationships with the procedural stories is always crucial in a story with a case-of-the-week structure, but it’s going to be even more important for Awake. I’m curious (though not skeptical, at least not yet) to see how long the “one case influencing and assisting another” premise can go without seeming staid. Unfortunately, I know that many critics have seen the first four episodes and apparently there is a big reveal at the end of episode two that suggests that Michael’s situation is not just one of his own mind’s creation. And the “this season on” promo hinted at a larger conspiracy-like story.
From my perspective, this is wholly unfortunate because as I said, the pilot doesn’t even allow you to worry about how this happens, you just want to see the experience of it. I personally don’t need everything to be a conspiracy or be powered by a larger conspiracy, even though I do see why others do. The problem is that Awake is never going to be able to satiate both camps: Any larger mystery could derail the character work that buoys the pilot and alienate viewers who enjoyed that internal complexity. Meanwhile, fans looking for clues could perhaps care less about Michael’s “journey” or especially not care about any of the police work. Ultimately, adding another challenging element to the story makes me fear for Awake’s future, and that makes me very sad.
Nevertheless, as a pilot, on a broadcast network in 2012? It’s hard to get better than what Awake does in this opening episode. Watch it, savor it. Awake might not be long for this world. Though it could exist in the parallel one, I guess. (Sorry, I had to.)