Grief is a strange fitful dream, in Awake

Last night, something really special premiered on NBC — Awake, a new show about a man trapped between two alternate realities. But really, Awake is about the power of dreams, and the ways in which grief can feel like a dream you can't wake up from.

Spoilers ahead...

It's only March, and already 2012 has given us two movie-quality TV pilots — the first being the first hour of The River, a show which has thus far failed to live up to that first episode's potential. Awake is definitely another pilot that almost feels a movie compressed into an hour, both with its lovely imagery and with its deft, fascinating character development. It's rare to get one movie-quality pilot in a given year, so two in two months is amazing.

In Awake, Jason Isaacs plays Michael Britten, a cop who's caught in a car accident in the pilot's opening moments. And afterwards, Michael finds himself in two realities: one where his wife died, one where his son died. Every time he goes to sleep in one world, he wakes up in the other — but neither of them feels like a dream. This show pours all of its creative energy into making both realities feel equally fleshed out and valid. Not just in Michael's relationships with his wife and kid, but also in his relationships with his fellow cops and in the cases he solves. And in each reality, Michael is solving a different case — except that the cases seem to cross over.

Grief is a strange fitful dream, in Awake

It could be horrendously gimmicky, especially if it leaned too hard on the "police procedural with reality-crossing" aspect. Instead, because it stays focused on Michael's character and the weird liminal state of being in both worlds at once, it's a beautiful, haunting look at grief. As Michael says at the end of the first episode:

Yes, I still see my wife and my son. But I've also watched both of them lowered into the ground. And when you see a loved one buried, you have one thought over and over and over again: and that's you would do anything, anything to get them back. So if you're telling me that the price of seeing them, feeling them, of having them in my life, is my sanity, it's a price I will happily pay.

The truth about grief is that it is a madness, in which the person or people you've lost are still there in your life. They're palpable both by their absence, the empty spaces they leave, and by all the traces they've left behind. Grieving people are literally insane, in that they cannot reconcile themselves to the real world the rest of us live in.

Michael Britten's last name is apt, in that it evokes the composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote one of the most beautiful Requiems of the 20th century, the War Requiem. (At left.)

Anyway, the worst part of grieving is that everybody expects you to act normal — and they're constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you're okay. Not so much out of concern for you, as worry that your madness is going to upset the normal order of things. In Michael Britten's case, his fellow cops are worried that he's losing his shit. In one reality, he's assigned a brand new partner, the newly promoted Det. Efram Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) who's assigned to report on him to the chief. In the other, he's still partnered with his best friend Isaiah (Steve Harris), who also starts questioning his weird behavior.

Grief is a strange fitful dream, in Awake

Some of the most disturbing, fascinating parts of Awake's pilot come when Michael is with his two therapists — in both universes, he's been assigned to go see a different therapist. One is Dr. John Lee (B.D. Wong), who badgers him and points out all the ways in which the case he's investigating in the other world could serve as a metaphor for his situation in this world. The other is Dr. Judith Evans (Cherry Jones), who is more gentle — to the point where Dr. Lee says her passivity is proof that she's not real. When the two therapists start commenting on each other's statements, it's almost too beautiful.

And in many ways, Awake feels like a show about weird therapy, in which both therapists are trying to get under Michael's skin in different ways.

None of this would work nearly as well if Jason Isaacs wasn't so warm and so weary as Michael Britten. His lined face and pale eyes convey several layers of feeling at any given moment, as Michael puts on a brave face at work and tries to be a good husband and father to the two lonely survivors of the car crash. Isaacs conveys a man who's struggling, and makes it look sort of effortless.

But we can already see that it's not going to last — Michael is already having to resort to wearing little color-coded bracelets, to remind himself which world he's in at any given moment. And when he wakes up in the world where his wife is supposed to be alive and the bed is empty, he freaks out, grabbing a knife and slicing his hand to see if he's really awake and this is really happening — only to have his wife show up.

Meanwhile, both Hannah Britten and Rex Britten are dealing with their own grief in different ways. Hannah is making a huge effort to move on and reconnect with her husband — she's painting the house, although she's leaving Rex's room alone for now. And she's talking about going back to school, possibly in Oregon. She even gets Michael to go out to dinner with her in a non-cop suit, and then tries to seduce him — until he starts obliquely talking about his dreams of their son. Meanwhile, Rex takes up tennis (his mom's sport) and turns out to be really good at it... until he wins, and then falls to his knees sobbing.

Grief is a strange fitful dream, in Awake

The other thing the show does deftly is to create two separate cases with enough twists and turns to be satisfying — the difficulty of this feat can't be understated, since many TV shows struggle to make one case interesting, let alone two. In one reality, Michael is investigating a murderer who kills in disguise and mugs for the TV cameras — until Michael realizes the killer is the witness he interviewed at the scene of one of the murders. In the other, he looks into the murder of a couple, whose little girl turns out to have been kidnapped by a pedophile psychopath... and he finally figures out the killer had a trailer, where he's keeping the girl.

Because this is a network TV show, Awake sets up some long-term mysteries apart from the huge, central one of what's happening to Michael. Luckily, this particular set of mysteries is actually compelling, and manages to avoid feeling like something out of Lost or whatever. The biggest mystery is the events leading up to the car accident that killed either Michael's wife or his son — was he drinking? Why can't he remember anything about it? Did something happen that night that people want hushed up, and is that one reason Michael is under so much scrutiny?

And then there's the mystery of interweaving cases — even though the two universes appear completely separate and fully realized, there are weird crossovers between them, including in the cases that Michael investigates. The number 611 turns out to be important in both cases, and Michael is able to use this fact to make progress in the kidnapping case. Plus the criminal in both worlds has red hair.

So is Michael dreaming in one world or the other? (If it turns out that neither world is real, and he's actually in a coma in a world where both his wife and his son are alive, I will throw my television set out the window.) Is this literally a story of a man crossing universes, or is it some kind of magical spiritual journey? It almost doesn't matter at this point what's "really" happening — so far, Awake is delivering a beautiful metaphor that shows how grief can feel like a dream you can't wake up from, or maybe a waking dream. If the show succeeds in deepening this metaphor over the following episodes, we could have a new classic on our hands.