Episode Title: "Pilot"
Writer: Kyle Killen
Director: David Slade
Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) is a man torn between two realities. In one world, his wife Hannah Britten (Laura Allen) perished in a horrific accident and in another, his son, Rex (Dylan Minnette) was killed but Hannah survived. Now unsure about which world is a real and which is a dream, Michael finds the two realities to be intricately linked as his sanity begins to crack.
In the opening moments, the Britten family is trapped as their car rolls down a cliff. Michael awakens, but his wife, Hannah and his son, Rex are both badly injured from the accident. Sometime later in the red reality (marked by a red wristband worn by Michael), the detective speaks to his Police psychiatrist, Dr. John Lee (B.D. Wong). Michael talks about burying his son while standing beside his grieving wife, who seems eager to makeover their lives to try to forget their pain. Michael also notes that the department has forced Detective Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) on him as his new partner.
Michael says that everything is relatively normal until he goes to sleep. When Michael wakes up, Hannah is gone and Rex is still alive, but somewhat distant from his father after the death of his mother. Over breakfast, Rex basically shrugs off Michael's attempt to get closer over Rex's upcoming tennis match. In this world (or the green reality, named after the green wristband worn by Michael), the detective is sent to see Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones), a more gentle therapist than Dr. Lee. In this world, Michael is also still partnered with his long-time friend, Detective Isaiah "Bird" Freeman (Steve Harris).
While investigating a couple murdered in their home alongside Bird, Michael deduces that the killings occurred to cover the abduction of the couple's young daughter. As Michael relates his tale to his psychiatrists in both worlds, they marvel at the coping mechanism that his brain has created while insisting that the other world is just a dream. But Michael states that both worlds feel real to him and he can not tell if he is awake or dreaming. In the red reality, Michael and Vega investigate the brazen shooting of a cab driver by a killer who seems to be posing for the security cameras.
At the first murder, Michael and Vega speak with an eye witness who claims to have seen the aftermath of the killing from his apartment window. But after the second murder, the killer seems to be wearing a different disguise which practically dares the police to find and stop him. In therapy, Michael tells Dr. Lee that he shared his dreams about Rex's survival with Hannah, who did not react well to the idea that Michael's mind created a world in which Michael and Rex live on without her.
In the green reality, Michael begs off of his police work for a few hours to attend Rex's tennis match alongside Rex's coach, Tara (Michaela); whom Michael seems to be attracted to. In the aftermath of his victory, Rex breaks down and cries before Tara comforts him in a motherly way. Later, Michael and Rex are joined by Tara in a celebratory dinner and with Tara's encouragement, Rex reaches out to his father and thanks him for coming to his before Michael is called in to work on the abduction case.
Tracking the killer's vehicle down to the Waverly long term parking lot, Michael notes that the dry parking spot in 611 behind the killer's spot means that someone may have seen the killer's vehicle before he left with the kidnapped girl. In the red reality, Michael and Vega review crowd footage on Michel's theory that the killer is returning to the scene of the crime in disguise to savor the moment. Vega also mentions that the first cab driver was killed at 611 Waverly; which Michael recognizes from the other world.
In the red reality, Dr. Lee tells Michael that the dreams about Rex and the other world are a subconscious hint that he should move on. But Michael realizes that if he chooses one world over the other, he would lose the other world for good. Later, Michael goes on a date with Hannah, and they become intimate for the first time since Rex's death. Hannah even mentions wanting to conceive another child, but Michael urges her to wait and think about that. When Michael wakes up in the morning, Rex is back in his room.
Now back in the green reality, Michael explains to Dr. Evans that Dr. Lee's theory makes sense and that the world with Evans and Rex may be a delusional dream. In a counterpoint, Dr. Evans prints out several pages of the Constitution and asks Michael to read the pages at random. After admitting that he has never memorized the Constitution, Michael is shaken by the thought that Hannah is truly dead. When Michael wakes up the next morning in what should be the red reality, he finds that his wristband is gone and neither Rex or Hannah are in the house.
Panicked and unable to tell dream from reality, Michael begins cutting his hand until Hannah appears and stops him. Michael also finds that his red wristband came off during the night while he slept. Later, Michael takes Vega back to 611 Waverly and he mentions that he had a dream about the place, which seems to worry Vega. Michael soon realizes that the eye-witness named Weaver could not have seen the killer as he claimed to from his apartment's perspective, which leads them to suspect that Weaver is the killer.
They spot Weaver watching them from his apartment and split up to find him. Michael spots Weaver first and gives chase into the street, but when Weaver circles around and gets the drop on Michael, it is Vega who puts him down. Sometime later, Vega asks Michael if he was joking about his dream comment and Vega admits that the captain is asking about Michael's mental health, but Vega insists that he has shared nothing. Back in the green reality, Michael takes Bird back to the Waverly parking lot, where Michael deduces that the killer took up both spaces with a trailer hitch. And because the killer has priors as a sex offender, they track him down in the foothills.
Soon, Michael and Rex lead other officers to the trailer and they quietly surround it. Michael finds the kidnapped girl and coaxes her to get closer to him. When the killer hears her movement, Bird shoots him dead. Later, Bird is skeptical about the mental leaps that Michael made to find the killer, but he let's it go for now. Back in the red reality, Dr. Lee warns Michael that his mental stability could crumble under the dual realities he has created and that he needs more help. But Michael insists that he would gladly sacrifice his sanity before giving up either his son or his wife. That night, Hannah asks Michael to tell Rex that she loves him before he goes to sleep.
There are two things that I could not have predicted about this TV season: that something good would come from the collaboration of the creator of "Lone Star" and the director of one of the "Twilight" films or that NBC would finally have a genre show that can be entertaining and withstand scrutiny. And yet "Awake" is easily one of the best network TV pilots to come along in ages.
The writing, direction and editing were top notch, but the reason that "Awake" works so well is the performance of Jason Isaacs; whose Michael Britten seems wounded and vulnerable without being weak. Isaacs carries Michael's grief within him at all times, but he adds different shades of relief when Michael is reunited with his son and his wife. But it's a delicate situation at best and Michael demonstrated just how close he is to a serious mental break when he couldn't distinguish between the two realities without his wristband. That was one of the best scenes in the pilot, as Michael became increasingly desperate and panicked.
It was also refreshing that Rex didn't fall into the "I hate you!" phase with his father and that Rex doesn't seem like he'll transition into the annoying teenage tropes of network television. Instead, Rex and Hannah both seem like they are dealing with their grief in realistic ways. It was also a nice touch that Hannah almost instantly tensed up in discomfort once Michael tried to share the story of Rex's tennis victory by claiming it was his partner's son that he watched. The callback at the end with Hannah attempting to pass on her love for Rex through Michael's dream was touching, but it felt like it was missing a transitional moment between her initial rejection of Michael's dream and her later acceptance.
I'm not quite as enamored with the police procedural side of "Awake," because the emotional aspects of Michael's life are by far the most intriguing things about the show. That said, it was interesting to see that the intersections between the two worlds managed to draw events together even if it didn't always make sense. And both of Michael's partners seem interesting, although I think that Vega has a bit more potential at this point.
Michael's therapists were also surprisingly engaging. Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans both made strong cases for why their respective worlds are the true reality; which actually made Michael question his sanity even further. Dr. Evans' example with the Constitution is harder to explain away and it may give the green reality the edge over the red reality. But it's not clear which world is real, or if we are even seeing the real world. For all we know, it was Michael who died in that car crash… or perhaps Michael is stuck in a coma and experiencing two different scenarios within his mind. There's nothing to back up either theory at the moment, but the question is very compelling.
The "Awake" pilot could have been a fantastic feature film if it had a more definitive ending. As a TV pilot, "Awake" still stands among the upper echelons of network television. The challenge now is to see if the writers and producers can maintain that quality on a weekly basis. This could be a really great TV show and I hope that "Awake" lives up to the potential that it displayed here.
Crave Online Rating: 9 out of 10.