DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
NBC premiers a new drama series tonight called "Awake." It's a detective show with a difference. As the series begins, the hero is in a terrible car accident with his wife and teenage son. He survives, along with one of his loved one - but which one? It's a question the series poses but refuses to answer.
Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The premise of NBC's new detective series, "Awake," is about as high concept as it gets. Jason Isaacs, one of the leads of Showtime's "Brotherhood," stars as Michael Britten, who survives a horrible car accident intact. Well, his body is intact. But his mind, or at least his subconscious, is split.
He sees a therapist to deal with all this, while continuing to work police cases with his partner and help the car crash's other survivor deal with similar feelings of grief and guilt. But - and this is the gimmick on which the entire series hinges - Michael's existence is binary. In one world, his therapist is played by Cherry Jones, and his wife is dead.
In the other, his therapist is played by BD Wong, and his son is dead. But he's living one existence, and perhaps dreaming the other. But which is which? It's so tricky a concept, even his therapists have a lot of questions. Starting with Cherry Jones.
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CHERRY JONES: (as Dr. Judith Evans) And this has been happening since the accident?
JASON ISAACS: (as Michael) Yeah.
JONES: (as Dr. Judith Evans) It's fascinating. Not to be insensitive, it's just that we come with all sorts of ways to get through the loss of a loved one, like your son taking up his mother's sport to maintain some sense of connection with her. But your mind, it simply created an entire reality where you haven't actually lost your wife at all.
BD WONG: (as Dr. John Lee) I don't think I've ever seen a coping mechanism quite like it. An elaborate and ongoing dream in which you haven't lost your son, relieving you of the obligation of dealing with his death.
ISAACS: (as Michael) Maybe.
WONG: (as Dr. John Lee) I'm sorry?
ISAACS: (as Michael) Whether I'm with my wife or with my son, it all feels completely real to me.
JONES: (as Dr. Judith Evans) You mean, you're not sure which is a dream?
WONG: (as Dr. John Lee) Meaning you can't tell whether you're awake or asleep at this very moment.
JONES: (as Dr. Judith Evans) Incredible.
ISAACS: (as Michael) Of course I'm awake. You know, I'm awake with my wife. And I close my eyes, I open them, I'm awake with my son.
JONES: (as Dr. Judith Evans) Well, I can assure you, Detective Britten, this is not a dream. What?
ISAACS: (as Michael) That's exactly what the other shrink said.
BIANCULLI: Right away, you can tell this is a lot less straightforward than, say, "CSI: Miami." And pretty soon, the pieces of the two puzzles pile up almost absurdly, and even a scorecard won't help keep everything straight, especially since things Michael learns in one world often help him cope, or solve crimes, in the other.
Already, I'm suspecting, "Awake" sounds like too much work. It was created by Kyle Killen, who concocted a different kind of dual-world drama with "Lone Star," the short-lived Fox drama about a man with a secret other family life. "Lone Star" may have been short-lived precisely because it was so Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish, but "Awake" has one big thing going for it.
One of its executive producers is Howard Gordon, whose credits include "24" and the current Showtime series "Homeland." Both of those dramas specialize in extended narratives, bold plot twists, and shifting perspectives. And in four episodes screened for preview, "Awake" plays with all those elements and ups the ante by adding new ones to the mystery.
Before long, there's a deadly conspiracy that involves some of the hero's superior officers - which is ripped straight from the "24" playbook - and eventually a serial killer on the loose who becomes fascinated taunting and targeting the hero. That sounds, and plays, a lot like the Red John subplot on the CBS cop show "The Mentalist" - but at least we know The Mentalist isn't dreaming.
After four episodes, it's my faith in the show's creators, and my affinity for puzzles, that keep me interested in "Awake." And it's also the cast. Jason Isaacs is a very likable lead, BD Wong and Cherry Jones are excellent as therapists with very different styles, and two of the hero's police-force colleagues, played by Steve Harris from "The Practice" and Laura Innes from "ER," are very strong as well.
But I'm undecided whether "Awake" will pay off. It's already presented a few scenes that seem to tip off which world is real. And though both therapists are encouraging Michael to drop the dream world and move on, who they kidding? If he does that, there's no show.
And even if he doesn't, I'm still not sure how good a show "Awake" is. For a while, I'll keep watching and I'll keep hoping that it turns into something that justifies its highly unusual concept. But I'm afraid, when it's all over, I could be dreaming.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.