Television is full of copied formulas. You know, the singing competition show, the police procedural, the musical, and did I mention the police procedural?
Each one has some minor unique property to it, but deep down, it's pretty similar to any other successful show you or someone you know is watching on television already.
But it's nice, once in a while, to see something truly different and new come along in the form of "Awake." And despite its rather complicated premise -- a police detective lives two different realities, one where his wife survived a brutal car accident, the other where his son survived -- it's easy to latch on and move forward.
So much, in fact, that I'm almost sorry that it's ended up on NBC. Not that I don't want NBC to have a hit and find a way to pull itself out of tough times. It's just that unless Christina Aguilera or Betty White is in it, nothing on NBC really lives for long.
And that could be true of "Awake." It's set to premiere March 1, as the lead-out from "Up All Night," one of the least-watched network shows on television. It's taking on a timeslot that has already killed two promising shows -- "Prime Suspect" and "The Firm." And that was just this season.
Yet, if anything that NBC has planned to air before the summer can help pull out something strong and good, "Awake" has all the mechanisms in place. Jason Isaacs, who fans should know as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter movie series, sheds that persona very quickly playing a police detective having to cope with the constant loss of either his wife or son, depending on which reality he's living in.
To tell the worlds apart, he wears two different color bracelets. He also has two different partners, and two different therapists. It's enough to really keep you guessing -- but it's also perfect to make you really feel that the end of the hour has come too soon.
I know there are a lot of people who love the procedurals -- get a case at the beginning of the hour, and have it solved by the end of the hour. But the formula that is played over and over gets almost tedious at times. And you have to hope that the drama in between is enough to sustain it.
That's how "House, M.D." on Fox lasted as long as it did. And once the in-between drama got stale, so did the formula.
But "Awake" has set itself up to not do that. Instead of spending an entire hour on a single case, you're actually spending an episode on two cases. It's almost like two episodes rolled into one.
The need to spread things out because you don't want to reveal your hero's victory until at least the final segment is gone, because you don't have much time to tell both stories, and tell them effectively.
What we get is storytelling that's to the point, and moving at rocket speed. It doesn't hurt that you've become attached to the main characters of this story very quickly, especially Isaac's on-screen wife Hannah Britten, played by Laura Allen, and his on-screen son Rex, played by "Lost's" Dylan Minnette.
In fact, there is one scene where Minnette falls to his knees, grieving for a mother he's known his whole life (but whom we just met), and if you aren't fighting back tears, then you must not have been paying attention.
The episode (and most likely the series) has already produced the dilemma: which reality is reality? To be honest, I hope Kyle Killen never reveals it. Because I'm liking both realities already. And I'm liking it a lot.
There have been two problems with introducing grounded genre topics in television shows in the past (like in "Alcatraz" and "Terra Nova," for example): The introductions are excruciatingly long, and the explanation is hard to get a grasp of in the beginning.
Sure, we're science-fiction fans, so we live for this stuff. But mainstream audiences aren't so sci-fi-gifted, so introducing complex story devices can be daunting, and could mean the death of your show before it gets started.
Yet, "Awake" doesn't do that. The premise is interesting, yet simple enough to understand. Plus, we don't have to wait until halfway through a two-parter to get to the point of it all. Killen brings us right to the premise, right at the very beginning. And taking a bit of a page from the film "The Hours," uses our amazing shrinks -- played by B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones -- to bring that point home almost instantly.
That is what these concepts need to be -- interesting enough to get our attention, but easy enough to explain and execute before the opening credits.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
I love this concept so much, but I am worried about how it can be sustained long-term. Sure, this is still a police procedural at its heart, but fans aren't going to wait around five years for the foundation itself to start growing.
Killen really needs to have the mythology aspect of the show planned out well in advance, including when he plans to make necessary reveals and answer specific questions (while hopefully asking even new ones) to keep this concept strong and vibrant.
Without that, this foundation of two realities will slowly degrade, as will the audience base.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
The pilot of "Awake" was written by Kyle Killen and directed by David Slade. It stars Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Dylan Minnette, B.D. Wong, Cherry Jones, Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama.
It airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.
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