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'Awake' keeps hero, viewers guessing at reality

By Lynn Elber
AP Television Writer / February 29, 2012
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LOS ANGELES—NBC's new drama "Awake" has the kind of intricate, high-concept premise that can test viewers. But that's nothing compared with what its producers face.

Howard Gordon, a master at juggling challenging plots ("24" and "The X-Files" among them), puts it flatly: "I learned nothing, and nothing I experienced prepared for me this."

"This is a vehicle that no one has driven before and has no operating instructions," said Gordon, who produces "Awake" with its creator, Kyle Killen.

The series, debuting 10 p.m. EST Thursday, stars Jason Isaacs as police Detective Michael Britten, a man living in two worlds. A car accident has claimed a family member's life: his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), in one, and his teenage son, Rex (Dylan Minnette), in another.

The duality extends to Britten's work, where he investigates cases with two partners (Steve Harris, Wilmer Valderrama), and discovers that straddling different realities gives him crime-busting insights.

While other TV shows with parallel universes and outcomes have dabbled in extreme explanations -- quick, explain "Lost" again -- Gordon and Killen insist this is a (relatively) simple case of a guy living one life and dreaming another.

Britten and the audience are just not sure which is which. Neither are the therapists who are treating him, with both assuring him that his OTHER life is the dream. He's unwilling to give up the balancing act that allows him to keep hold of both wife and son.

"At the center of it is the question we all live with as people, which is how do we face loss and how do we live in the face of loss," Gordon said.

The detective wears colored wristbands to keep his lives straight. Isaacs insists viewers have it easier.

When the pilot was being developed, he said, there was concern that the idea was so tricky, his character might need to be bearded in one world and beardless in the other to help viewers distinguish between them.

"But my daughter, who's 5, told me the story in three sentences," Isaacs recalled. "So I told the producers, `We don't need to worry.' It's such a powerful and imaginative premise."

Besides, he said, anytime his character is confused, "It's great drama: `What's happening today? What's happening in this world?'"

While keeping a grip on his sanity, Britten is trying to prove to his superiors that he's fit for work and trying to help his grieving wife and son cope with their losses.

"We want him to put his life back together and have his wife and son," Killen said. "You and he become invested in those two worlds."

Elements from one sometimes cross over to the other, Killen said. That raises the intriguing notion that the two may ultimately merge, but the producers aren't saying.

"Awake" employs a classic trick to allow viewers to dip in at any point: It's what Gordon calls an "old-school title sequence" that restates the concept before each episode.

"So if you tune in for episode seven, you have the tools to sit down and enjoy that hour of television," Gordon said. "For an idea like this, clarity is your friend and you want to make the barrier as low as possible."

(He credits the "Run for Your Life" playbook. The 1960s drama, starring Ben Gazzara as a terminally ill man, started each week with the scene in which the character learned his death sentence and then intoned, "Guess I'll try to squeeze 30 years of living into one, or two.")

If any cast and crew are up to the task it's this one. Isaacs routinely is a standout in whatever he tackles, including his role as Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" films and as Michael Caffee in the series "Brotherhood."

Britten's therapists are portrayed by Cherry Jones ("24") and BD Wong ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"). Valderrama of "That `70s Show" gets to play against type and makes the most of his earnest, ambitious lawman.

Producer Gordon's latest triumph is the Showtime drama series "Homeland," starring Claire Danes. Killen wrote the provocative Jodie Foster-Mel Gibson movie, "The Beaver," and the well-reviewed, sadly short-lived Fox drama "Lone Star."

Now it's time for U.S. viewers to weigh in on "Awake," the English-born Isaacs said, and he has faith in them.

"There's a lot of discussion online and among my friends, who say, `I love it, but I don't think the public will get it,'" the actor said, dismissing that as a "patronizing idea."

"We underestimate them at our peril," Isaacs said.

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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.

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