For whatever inexplicable reasons, Americans are becoming pop culturally obsessed with alternate worlds / parallel universes. It’s cropping up in films (Mike Cahill’s navel-gazing astronomy lesson Another Earth) and in television (FOX’s mind-bending mystery series “Fringe”). Heck, even venerable kids’ comic book “Life With Archie” has dedicated the last year or so to exploring two increasingly dark parallel existences—one in which Archie married Betty and one in which he married Veronica. (I’m not even kidding.) Now, NBC goes whole hog with the concept with the speculative cop drama “Awake.”
In “Awake,” Jason Isaacs (nasty Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films) stars as Michael Britton, a Los Angeles detective still recovering from a deadly car accident that stole part of his family from him. The only question is what part? Michael seems to be living in two worlds now. In one, his son died in the car accident. In the other, his wife died. Every time he goes to sleep, our protagonist wakes up in the other existence. Surely, one of these worlds isn’t real. That’s what his psychiatrist says, anyway. Unfortunately, he’s got two of those—one in each world. And each one insists the other doesn’t exist.
In either world, Michael is stuck doing standard TV cop work. Television continues to believe Americans are incapable of absorbing drama if it doesn’t involve one of three stock career paths: cop, lawyer or doctor. Each week (much like fellow police-
Writing on the show is surprisingly mature. (Credit writer/producer Kyle Killen, creator of the potentially interesting, prematurely axed con man drama “Lone Star.”) Michael’s situation is dark, intriguing and emotional. Rather than relying entirely on the show’s odd gimmick, creators are trying to address the human issues at play here. Is Michael’s situation real or imagined? Is it the result of freaky conspiracy or deep personal guilt? Is his decision to live happily in two worlds wise or just greedy? Isaacs handles the assignment expertly, crafting a character who is hurt and haunted but resolute.
Here’s hoping the makers of “Awake” are given enough time to develop what they’ve started. Cancel this one too quickly and we could end up with the unsatisfyingly abrupt wrap-up of ABC’s equally head-trippy cop series “Life on Mars.” Give it time, and there’s every reason to believe the series will live up to its elegantly constructed, smartly written and poignantly acted pilot.