NBC has been the broadcast network bottom dweller for several years now and has sought to pull itself out of the ratings pit with various new comedies, like Up All Night and dramas this season, like Smash, none of which have become major hits. 

The new year has brought another attempt to get the network some viewer traction with a daring series that combines the familiarity of the police procedural with the existential strangeness of a latter-day Twilight Zone. Credit NBC's Awake with being willing to take chances with something really different. But will it be too different to hold viewers?

In the first moments of the series pilot, we see an SUV crashing wildly down a steep ravine. Inside the vehicle are Michael Britten, his wife Hannah and teenage son Rex their arms flailing helplessly in terror as bits of glass fly through the cabin before the vehicle comes to a sickening stop on its roof. 

Then, we see Michael with his wife at the funeral of his son, and then we see him and his son attending the funeral of his wife and we realize that Michael is living two lives. Every time he "wakes" he lives in one or the other world. And in each version of his life, his job as a Los Angeles police detective is subtly different. In the version where his wife lives, his new partner is a young Latino officer, Efrem Vega, who Michael knows was assigned to him to determine whether he's stable enough after losing his son to do his job. But in his other life, where only his son lives, he still has his original partner, Isaiah, "Bird" Freeman (Steve Harris from The Practice). 

In both worlds, Michael is seeing psychiatrists about the loss of a family member. In Hannah's world, Michael meets with Dr. John Lee (B.D. Wong), and in Rex's, with Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones). He soon explains to both that when he sleeps, he dreams he is living with his deceased family member. Dr. Lee thinks he is not willing to let go of Rex, to make peace with his loss. Dr. Evans is more comforting in her manner, marveling at how Michael's subconscious has created a way to work through his traumatic separation from his wife through dreaming. Got all that?

Yes, this is one of the more high concept dramas on television right now and I wonder whether it might float right over many viewers' heads. The pilot episode establishes the premise's symmetrical structure, neatly jumping back and forth between the two lives and cueing us in to where we are with subtle changes in color tone: when we're in Hannah's world, the image is warm with yellows and browns dominant; in Rex's there a shift to a light green tint.

Michael is aware of each world and remembers what has happened in one when he's in the other, like jumping between parallel worlds.  Then, when he begins investigating a crime in one world, he finds that there are clues in the other that helps him solve the case. Each partner is puzzled about Michael's seemingly out-of-left-field hunches that lead toward resolution of the crime but he really can't be telling them that he literally dreamed up the solution. (In this, the show reminds me a bit of the premise of Grimm, another new NBC show, where the hero's gift is perceiving the monstrous identity of a perpetrator no one else can see, or know about.)

The dramatic heart of the show is Michael's ongoing struggle in each world to work through the loss of a family member and I've found that his time with Rex to be particularly affecting. As played by one of Britain's great actors, Jason Issacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) with his handsome but worn features, Michael is a wounded warrior, tough but with a tender heart. Hannah, as sensitively played by Laura Allen, knows that her husband dreams of their son every night. Rex is played by the talented Dylan Minette, who coincidentally played Jack Shepherd's imaginary son in the "Sideways" world, on Lost. You can believe that Rex is tortured by his preference that his mother had survived the accident.

This is quite a complex setup and we have to wonder just how long Michael, and the series, can keep this balancing act going. When Dr. Lee tells Michael that if he continues the shift between these two worlds, one waking, one sleeping, he risks his sanity. But his patient calmly responds, "When you see a loved one buried, you have one thought over and over again, that you would do anything, anything, to get them back. So if you're telling me that the price of seeing them, feeling them, of having them in my life is my sanity, it's price I will happily pay. . . when it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress."

That's a resolution and a series premise that will be tested as we follow the determined father, husband and detective through his waking and sleeping life. One wonders which life is real, or, for that matter is either? We learn in the second episode that there are scenes in both worlds where Michael is absent and we see other characters that he doesn't see. This, the show's creator, Kyle Killen explains, is a dramatic necessity, for story exposition, rather than a clue as to which world is real. In the second episode, we learn that Michael's superior has met with a man who was supposed to have made sure that the entire family died in the accident. But again, is this the dream world or reality? 

Audiences may have a tough time with such a strange and challenging plot, which requires a two-sided scorecard to keep track of the parallel worlds. Like every new show, it must demonstrate that such a premise can go the distance of a multi-season run. I don't know if the compelling Issacs and the cast is strong enough to keep us invested in Michael's dream world and reality, whichever which one is.

*This review first published 3/26/2012

 

**Watch Awake Thursdays on NBC