Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten in NBC's Awake.
Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten in NBC's Awake. Lewis Jacobs/NBC
NBC's Awake, which officially premieres tonight after an online preview period, is the strongest pilot I've seen for a broadcast TV drama in quite a while — certainly miles stronger than anything I saw for the fall season.
The premise is that a man named Michael has a car accident with his wife and son, and he begins alternating every time he falls asleep between a reality in which his son died and one in which his wife died — or, if you prefer, between one in which his wife survived and one in which his son did. It's as if you always dreamed of Paris, so vividly and consistently and completely that you became unsure of whether perhaps you actually lived in Paris and dreamed of home.
This much is simply a really clever gimmick, but by the close of the first episode, the show has developed a bunch of very interesting emotional threads from it.: Michael's ambivalence about his situation, what to tell his wife about the fact that he sometimes dreams she's dead, and whether meeting someone new in the life where his wife is dead would be cheating on her in the one where she's alive.
Because the dynamics here are so unusual, creator Kyle Killen (who also made the fine and instantly canceled 2010 drama Lone Star) has wisely added a therapist to each of Michael's lives, and has cast them with stellar actors: B.D. Wong in one world, Cherry Jones in the other. The therapists have very different approaches to his problem, and each honestly believes that the other is fictional. Neither of them considers it a real conflict between fully real people, but that's how Michael experiences it.
Killen is evidently fascinated by the way dreams and reality interact: each therapist, for instance, can explain how the other life — the dream life — might be a manifestation of Michael's anxieties in the world in which they know him. Michael sees things in both lives and isn't sure what that means. His problem bleeds over into his life as a cop, where he's solving different cases in each version of reality, but naturally, they feel related, since one is presumably influencing the other.
The biggest difference between Awake and most of broadcast television is how unsuited it is to multitasking. A number of critics have noted that the show might be too complicated for audiences, too byzantine for its own good. I agree that it cannot be watched in the same way as, say, a crime procedural where the leads often do you the favor of explaining what everything means the moment it happens. ("That's the same gun we saw in the alley." "So the same person committed both crimes!")
It's also far more taxing to watch than reality shows, which even at their most entertaining are entirely hospitable to your getting up in the middle to do other things. Get up and do the dishes for a bit, get up and answer the phone, put the kids to bed, get on Facebook — you won't miss anything. Surveys show that this is how a lot of people watch TV now; they're on their computers or on their phones doing other things, tuning in and out. I don't happen to attribute the rise of reality shows to people getting stupider, but I do attribute it in part to people wanting to devote a smaller percentage of their attention to what they're watching.
But for people who are willing to treat it more like a movie, where you sit down for an hour and watch it and that's what you're doing, Awake is certainly not too complicated to find an audience, nor is it terribly hard to follow. This is often how critics watch shows for review, which is how they wind up saying that it's not too complicated for them, but it's probably too complicated for audiences.
Remember, no show has to find the audience, just an audience. The difference between a show that's a flop and a show that's a hit can be something like five million viewers versus 15 million. That's maybe 1.5 percent of the U.S. population versus 4.5 percent. If you get a 15 share — meaning 15 percent of the televisions in use at that time are watching your show — you are doing very, very well.
In other words, even hit shows aren't being watched by most people, and that's especially true now that more channels are dividing up the audience.
You don't have to make everybody happy to be successful; it's not the job of this show or any show to make itself the thing that everyone wants to watch. And frankly, however off-putting you think a complicated plotline is to a certain number of people, musical numbers are off-putting to at least as many people, and that didn't make Glee a failure or make everyone declare from the beginning that Smash was doomed to fail.
What's important is that people who want television to be more thoughtful and imaginative — and whatever else Awake is, it's highly imaginative — be willing to sit down and give it the kind of attention they'd give to a movie of which they had high expectations. This isn't a matter of the show being too complicated per se, it's a matter of its being poorly suited to the way people watch television when they have low expectations.
Ultimately, there is a tension between being spoon-fed enough that you can easily multitask and being challenged enough that the neurons that don't fire when you watch America's Next Top Model are firing. Distraction-ready television is immensely useful for cleaning the house, winding down, whatever. I love a lot of it myself. But this is a richly interesting narrative, and it's worth watching closely, and if you do that, it's entirely digestible. It's also beautifully acted and written, packed with genuinely vexing questions about grief and dreaming, and — of all things — thoughtful.