Saturday, February 18, 2012

TV Review: Awake

Following the return of The Voice and the debut of Smash, the next offering in NBC's "Why Don't You Like Us Anymore?" spring awakening strategy is Awake, a crime procedural with a twist. (Sidebar: since every crime procedural has a twist these days the easiest way to be 'fresh' would be to just solve a crime ever week, wouldn't it?)

In this case we have Michael (played by Harry Potter's Jason Isaacs) a police detective who, after surviving a car crash, finds himself alternating between alternate realities. Upon awakening, Michael finds himself in a reality where either his son, or his wife, died in the crash and at the end of the day when he goes to sleep he wakes up in the morning of the other reality.

The series' greatest strength is how un-complicated they keep the premise. The twin realities have enough differences -- two psychiatrists, two police partners -- aside from the living family member to know which is which, an audience stand-in for Michael's practice of wearing color-coded bracelets to tell life from life: red for the world in which his wife is alive, green for his son.

After so many years of Law and Order and it's unending slate of imitators, solving crimes is the last thing on anybody's mind over at Awake. Since broadcast television has to be mass-marketable (read: dumbed down) Michael works on a case-of-the-week which double as a MacGuffin for the day and also as a fun trick to show the overlap between the two worlds. In the debut, a murder at the address of 611 Waverly is mirrored by a child kidnapping where a key piece of evidence is found at stall number 611 at the Waverly parking lot. See what they did there?

The real question, of course, is whether or not any, or all, of this is "real." Michael's twin head-shrinkers (played like fire and ice by B.D. Wong and 24's Cherry Jones) provide a lot of the thinking-man's fun by suggesting their theories of reality and making convincing arguments that each of them is a corporeal human being and not, as they simultaneously suggest about each other, a figment of his imagination. "I can assure you," Jones says, "that this is real." "Funny," Michael responds, "that's exactly what Dr. Lee said."

Of course the joke is on all of them. While we can all sympathize with their assumption that Michael has developed a coping mechanism to deal with his loss, we, the audience, know full well that each reality is just as real as the other. Either Michael is, in fact, bouncing between two parallel realities or, as I suspect, something else is afoot entirely. We get our first glimpse at the game thickening towards the end of the premiere episode as it becomes clear that Michael's memory of the cause of his accident is shaky at best and, in a more dramatic example, we see a taste of the potential madness that Michael is headed toward if he doesn't get a handle on his situation. The mind, as we all know, needs rest. (Sidebar number 2: did it bother anyone else that James Cameron never addressed this in Avatar?)

Awake intrigues, and implies that there is more fun in store. The supporting cast seems to have their fun without chewing the scenery and is an eclectic mix of "I know that face but not that name" actors including Wilmer Valderama and Steve Harris, the latter being the character in the most dangerous of entering caricature land with lines like "You know I've had a cold since the Clinton Administration." Isaacs, in an attempt to bury his English accent, has buried much of his personality and charm as well and comes across as a monotone block of wood but hopefully with time he'll be able to get comfortable in the skin of his alter-ego from across the pond, like his countryman Hugh Laurie.

In all, an interesting concept wrapped in an easy to swallow candy shell. I don't see CBS-level audiences latching onto the show but, typical for NBC, it's better than most of what's out there and has me intrigued for more. B

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