Jason Isaacs stars in "Awake." (Lewis Jacobs / NBC )
"Awake,"whose first hour has been available online since mid-February, finally makes its television premiere Thursday on NBC. I have been waiting for this moment since last summer, since the pilot first went out to the press. Notwithstanding a certain stylistic chilliness and my sense of it having been pitched on the back of"Inception," it promised to be one of the year's best and most interesting new series. Having seen four episodes now, I'd say the promise has been largely kept.
Jason Isaacs, a soulfully aging actor whom hundreds of millions know as Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" movies but whom I tend to think of as the star of Showtime's excellent and insufficiently celebrated "Brotherhood," plays Michael Britten, a police detective who has survived a car crash that has and has not killed his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), and son, Rex (Dylan Minnette). That is to say, since that event, he lives in two realities (or two dreams, or one of each): In one, Hannah has died, in the other, Rex has, and when Michael falls asleep in one world, he wakes immediately in the other.
In the world in which his wife survives, Wilmer Valderrama plays Michael's partner and B.D. Wong his reluctantly seen psychiatrist; in the other, Steve Harris and Cherry Jones, respectively, get those jobs. (This is a great cast.) Though their approaches are different, each doctor provides plausible explanations for what Michael is experiencing and each maintains that it's something he's going to have to work through to keep his brain from exploding.
Michael, for his part, sees the advantages in his predicament, and not only as regards his separately surviving family: What he learns as a cop on his cases in one world helps him solve different cases in the other. Harris' character is bemused by his partner's "intuitions": "I've been a cop for 20 years; I've only seen hunches on TV."
The show's creator, Kyle Killen ("Lone Star"), may have had some endgame in mind when he created "Awake" — though perhaps that business has been left to show runner Howard Gordon ("Homeland,"yet another story about leading a double life) to work out. (That the series halted production for a month last fall suggests that these things are mutable.) I can see that where you go with an idea like this, especially when your goal is to fill multiple seasons of network television, might be problematic. Later episodes suggest dark conspiracies and wheels behind wheels, which may or may not have anything to do with Michael's strange state(s) of mind.
But "explanations" in such cases are almost invariably disappointing. (A dream? Mind control? Everyone dead? Been there, yawned then.) What makes "Awake" work is the poetical idea, or a philosophical one, that underlies the narrative. It's a thought experiment expressed as a drama, as"Groundhog Day"was as a comedy, and doesn't need a rationale. The story's best elements are domestic and personal, in any case: the balancing of sadness and joy, grieving and relief, shut doors and new possibilities his condition demands and affords. (We see that even before the crash, there may have been some problems at home.) If they had asked me — which they never do, somehow — I might not have made Michael a policeman.
Of course, on television or in a movie every moment is equally real and equally imagined. There is no difference between a character moving through a dream and moving through his waking life; in each case he is having a palpable experience that adds to his and our understanding of the action. (Is Oz less real than Kansas?) Indeed, in each reality, events occur outside of Michael's presence that would suggest that both of his worlds possess independent actuality.
If Michael doesn't think he has to choose, I say, neither should we. The original title for the show was "R.E.M.," suggesting sleep, perchance a dream. As it stands, it's called "Awake."