Actor Jason Isaacs, star of NBCs newest Thursday night drama, "Awake." (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
What's in the hatch? Where are the aliens? Who killed Laura Palmer? "Lost,""The X- Files"and "Twin Peaks"set the standard for long-form television by milking these and other questions for every imaginable ounce of suspense possible. This season's heir to prime-time's Big Riddle throne, NBC's "Awake," unspooled its mysteries within the traumatized cranium of Det. Michael Britten. Each week Britten, survivor of a horrendous accident, woke up to a world in which his wife is still alive and his son is dead. Except for when it's the other way around. Or maybe he's dreaming.
Jason Isaacs, who played Britten, had to deal with the dead-or-alive duality on a daily basis, and not just on set. "I get people driving by in the street who roll the window down and gleefully scream, 'Your wife's dead!' before driving off. The people sitting next to me at Starbucks don't quite know what's going on."
And though "Awake" won't be returning for a second season—it was canceled in May— many still see the English actor as a strong Emmy contender for the series. Admired by a handful of TV viewers for his intense performance as a Rhode Island psychopath in Showtime's "Brotherhood" series, Isaacs sees his first network project as a chance to challenge viewers. "This is not television where you can walk out of the room to make a waffle or look at your laptop at the same time. You really have to watch it."
Isaacs plays both versions of the character "absolutely real" while operating at all times in a state of self-doubt. "In every scene, some part of me is thinking: 'I wonder if I'm making this up?' That's a layer I've never seen on television before and one reason I jumped into 'Awake.' I wanted to explore how many levels can we make this show work on while still keeping it entertaining? My hope was to use the subterfuge of procedural drama to get under people's noses."
By splitting each episode into two criminal cases populated by parallel sets of family members (Laura Allen and Dylan Minnette), detectives (Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama), precinct captains (Laura Innes and Mark Harelik) and therapists (Cherry Jones and BD Wong), "Awake" trod a risky path. "Lost,""Battlestar Galactica,""Fringe" (which concludes its fifth season next year) and other long-running series reward faithful viewers by weaving dense narrative backstories into each week's episode. But when a mythology-driven show gets yanked before the clues pay off, disgruntled fans get left in the lurch.
"Nobody cares if a pure procedural gets shut down after six episodes," "Awake" creator Kyle Killen says. "You don't feel like, 'Boy, I really got into the story and now no one will tell me how it ends.' But with everything after 'Lost' that reaches for that mantle of pure super-serialized storytelling, people feel disappointed when they invest in a series and the show doesn't make it."
Killen had already experienced that disappointment once before. His 2010 Fox series "Lone Star" featured an interconnected story arc centered on a Texas con man who loves two women. It got canceled after two episodes.
Undeterred, Killen grafted the core "Lone Star" concept into his new show. " 'Lone Star' dealt with a character who had two lives and did everything he could to avoid giving either one of them up," he says. "That feeling of somebody being torn between two places and not wanting to fix something that everyone else saw as an obvious problem was still floating around in my head when I came up with the idea for 'Awake.'"
Killen became further fascinated with creating a long-form mystery about a delusional protagonist after his wife, a doctor, shared stories about an otherwise normal-seeming patient who insisted that he was covered with worms. "I've always been obsessed with the way that your understanding of reality is a construct of the way your brain puts it together," Killen says. "It seems very possible to me that if your brain decided to be uncooperative, it could disguise from you what's what. That really intrigued me."
In the end, the "Awake" finale offered fans closure of sorts with an ending that finally went beyond the detective's dual-reality mindscape. Cracking open yet a third imaginary dimension, Britten's wife and son are both alive and well — in his dreams.
"The ending was the ending we'd planned all season and not something we came up with in response to cancellation," Killen says. "If we'd been picked up for a second season, nothing about the last episode would have changed."