Awake is a show with a very high concept. Jason Isaacs plays Los Angeles detective Michael Britten, a man returning to work shortly after being in a car accident that changed his life. He was driving when he went off the road, with his wife and son in the car with him.
But the way his life has been changed is not straightforward. Because while one day he will wake up and remember that his wife is still alive and his son has died, the next day he will wake up and remember that his son is still alive, and it was his wife who died in the crash. Britten believes he is living in two realities, solving cases in each one and either rebuilding his relationship with his wife, or forming a new bond with his son. Are both worlds real, or has he invented one as a coping mechanism?
In order to remind himself of which reality he is living in, Michael wears a red elastic band on his wrist when he’s with his wife, Hannah, and a green one when he’s with his son, Rex. He has different psychiatrists and partners in both realities, Dr. Lee and detective Efrem Vega when he is with his wife, and Dr. Evans and Isaiah “Bird” Freeman when he is with his son. And in both realities he’s attempting to do his job and move on with his life.
The pilot episode dives straight into Britten’s life, as he talks to Dr. Lee about what happens to him every time he opens his eyes. In the ‘red’ reality, he has a new partner, Vega, who has been promoted (Britten thinks) to keep an eye on him and report back to police officials about how he is acting. They are investigating the murder of a taxi driver, with a killer who seems happy to pose for a picture from CCTV cameras (in disguise). At home, Hannah has been repainting the house, but has yet to go into Rex’s room.
Meanwhile, in the ‘green’ reality Britten and his long-time partner Bird are investigating the abduction of a young girl, taken after her parents were murdered. Rex has taken up tennis since his mother died, and is a talented player. Michael watches one of his matches, and speaks to Tara, Rex’s tennis coach. After Rex wins, he drops to his knees, emotionally exhausted as he thinks of his mother, but he turns to Tara for comfort, instead of his father.
Both psychiatrists are fascinated by what they believe Britten has ‘created’ alternate realities where different members of his family survived the crash. Lee believes creating the green reality stops Britten from taking responsibility for the death of his son, while Evans thinks that while Rex has taken up tennis to cope, but Michael has created a world with his wife instead of dealing in reality. Evans tells Michael ‘I can assure you, this is not a dream’, to which Michael responds ‘That’s what the other shrink said’.
As Britten works on both cases, he begins to recognise that details and clues have meanings in both realities. The address where the first cabby killing took place is the number of a parking spot where the abductor’s car was last seen, and when Britten realises this, it prompts him to return to the address, which will become a key moment in his attempts to stop the killer.
When Britten explains to Dr. Evans what approach Dr. Lee is taking in their sessions, she gives Michael a test. She prints off the American constitution, and asks him to pick a random page and start reading. He does so, but is confused by the purpose of this. Evans asks him if he’s memorized the whole thing. He hasn’t, so how could he read aloud from it if this reality wasn’t the real reality?
Britten is a confused man, but he and his partners manage to solve both crimes. When Dr. Lee tells him that his ‘fantasy’ could lead to him losing his sanity, he is resolute with his answer. If getting ‘better’ means he has to say goodbye to his wife or son forever, then he has no desire to ever get better.
So yes, Awake is a show with a high concept, but it’s extremely well written, and very well acted. The pilot episode offers no answers; either reality could be a fantasy, but both could be real. But with Britten determined to keep his wife and son alive, can he continue to function normally in both realities, or will he lose his mind? It’s a big question, and one that is sure to make Awake a compelling watch.