When I first saw the pilot for NBC’s Awake, starring Jason Isaacs, I had the familiar feeling of simultaneous excitement and apprehension that I think many television critics have when pre-screening shows before the new season. Excitement because the series looks really engaging and good; apprehension because it’s almost too good to last. It made me even more nervous when NBC kept waffling on the premiere date. Now that the premiere is just about here (next Thursday, March 1 at 10pm ET) and in fact, the pilot is already available to view (see above), we thought we should talk about the show. So we did — with series lead Jason Isaacs.
If you haven’t yet seen the pilot episode, Awake stars Isaacs as L.A. Robbery/Homicide Division detective Michael Britten, who gets into a terrible car wreck along with his wife and son (played by Laura Allen and Dylan Minnette). When he wakes up, his son has died — or so it seems. As Britten forges ahead with his life, solving crimes and dealing with the everyday, his behavior becomes progressively erratic because every time he goes to sleep, he has vivid dreams of an alternate world in which his wife died in the crash, and his son is alive. In each of his two worlds, he has a different analyst trying to convince him that his alternate existence is an illusion.
“To use pop psychology, he’s obviously living in denial,” Isaacs says of his character. “Clearly, one of these worlds is a dream. There’s no way of avoiding it. It’s just not possible for there to be two realities where his wife and his son are both alive, but he’s not that keen to move on, because this way he has both his wife and his son, and doesn’t have to experience the loss of either of them, really.”
It’s a complex scenario, compounded by the fact that Britten deals with death and its after-effects on a daily basis in his work. “He’s not stupid. … He knows what’s coming — and he sees it,” Isaacs explains. “He sees what his life is like to have lost his son. He sees what his son’s life is like to have lost a mother, and he’s living this strange existence between these two worlds, and I don’t blame him for not being that keen to get to the next stage. Who knows how long we can sustain it for? Hopefully, as long as it stays entertaining.”
The premise is undeniably compelling, but also incredibly precarious. It’s unrealistic that the pattern could continue for years and years without coming to a crisis point — yet once that crisis point is reached and the conceit of the series is given up, the mystery could easily become whether or not the show can continue.
“There’s no question it’s challenging,” Isaacs says of the issue of sustaining the illusion for any length of time. At the same time, he’s confident in the talent surrounding him on Awake. “We’ve got a bunch of very experienced writers who have written things from HBO shows to The X Files, to 24 and everything in between. And they are challenged. All of them have said that it’s the hardest job that they’ve ever had. But sometimes that’s a good thing. … If it comes easily, that they could write in their sleep, I personally wouldn’t want to act — and I think the audience wouldn’t want to watch.”