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‘Awake’ raises questions that will keep you tossing and turning

| Senior Cadenza Editor

Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten stars in the pilot episode of “Awake.”Courtesy of NBC

Jason Isaacs as Michael Britten stars in the pilot episode of “Awake.”

Thursday, 9:00 p.m.

As a longtime viewer of sci-fi shows like “Fringe,” I’m quite comfortable with the notion of parallel universes. They intrigue me greatly—change one small detail and create a whole new world. NBC’s new show “Awake,” which premieres Thursday, March 1, at 9 p.m. CST, offers a new spin on parallel universes, and it does so with finesse and perfection.

The show opens with a car crash. We see a family of three—a father, mother and son—trapped upside down under their seatbelts. Shortly, it cuts to the father, Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), talking to a therapist, explaining his predicament. We learn that his son, Rex (Dylan Minnette), died in the crash, and we see him and his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), at Rex’s funeral. However, when Michael goes to sleep, he wakes up in a world where his wife is dead and his son is alive. We see Michael and Rex standing at Hannah’s funeral, but otherwise, the funeral scene is exactly the same. Whenever Michael goes to sleep, he wakes up in the other world. He doesn’t know if both universes are real, or if one is just a figment of his imagination. If one is fake, then he doesn’t know which one.

If you’ve watched NBC since the Super Bowl, you’ve probably seen the “Awake” promo. I was fascinated enough by it to watch the pilot, which NBC leaked on and NBC On Demand, which most Charter cable subscribers should have access to. I urge anyone even remotely interested to watch the premiere, because it blew me away.

Michael distinguishes the universes by wearing a red rubber band around his wrist when his wife is alive, and a green one in the universe in which Rex survived. The best scenes occur when Michael visits his therapist, Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong) in the red world and Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) in the green. Their scenes are intercut with each other, and both try to convince Michael that they are real. The editing perfectly captures the instability that Michael must feel. Dr. Evans comes up with a particularly brilliant gambit to prove that she actually exists, but viewers are led to believe that both universes do exist. Details from each universe bleed into the other, helping Michael solve his detective cases.

NBC had the opportunity to air “Awake” in the fall, but they decided to hold it because they believed it to be too smart for most viewers. Even though I consider myself a pretty savvy television viewer, I was confused at times. However, the confusion adds to the viewing experience, as audience members are perplexed with Michael.

The pilot did everything right. The image isn’t perfect and it’s often grainy, which amplifies Michael’s sense of the unreal. The sound mixing and editing serve to disorient viewers, but that makes perfect sense in this situation. There was one moment where Michael thought both Hannah and Rex were dead, and I bought it (even though I was aware that this would immediately ruin the premise of the show). My only hesitation comes in whether the concept is viable for a multi-season TV show, but the brilliance within the pilot makes me have faith.

Is Michael asleep? Is he awake? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.