Hard to understand why NBC would keep Awake sitting on its bench for so long, because the show is better than most of the series the network had in its starting lineup for the season.
On Awake, the concept is all. Consequently, it takes a little explaining.
Following a car crash, police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, the malevolent Lucius Malfoy of the Harry Potter universe) spends his days in alternating realities.
In one, his wife (Laura Allen) survived the accident and is grieving the loss of their teenaged son.
The next day, Britten will awaken to a world in which he is left to raise his son (Dylan Minnette, whom you may remember as Jack's son on Lost) because his wife died in the crash.
Britten takes to wearing colored rubber bracelets to keep his days, and thus his family circumstances, straight. If this guy ever starts catnapping, his life could get really complicated.
The scenarios in each reality are markedly different. He has different murders to solve, different investigative partners (Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama), even different psychiatrists (BD Wong and Cherry Jones).
The shrinks each try to convince him that they are real and that the other world is merely an elaborate coping mechanism his subconscious is projecting onto his dreaming state.
Soon, like some kind of Jungian chess match, the details from one crime begin to bleed over into the other (no pun intended). Suddenly, it seems like the levelheaded detective is working the most harebrained hunches.
At one point, his puzzled boss asks, "Why are you pulling all these mug shots of short people anyway?" Well, this crazy homeless guy who doesn't exist in this particular space-time continuum told me . . . aw, forget it.
Awake is wonderfully acted, especially by Isaacs, who gives a riveting performance. The look of the show is unusually rich and vivid.
The question is, will the concept hold up over the long haul? On the plus side, it has Howard Gordon as executive producer. He has proven on series like 24 and Homeland that he knows how to retain viewers' attention. And since there are two murders to solve in every episode, this will be a busier hour than the original Law & Order.
But as the weeks go by, the roles of the psychiatrists will almost certainly grow more marginal, which is a shame because the sessions are among the shows' highlights.
One distressing note: Awake throws a red herring into the water a couple of episodes in - the suggestion that there's more to Britten's condition than a sleep disorder.
Laura Innes (ER) was a late addition to the cast as a police captain who holds clandestine meetings with shadowy figures, at which they cryptically discuss how much Britten knows and if Innes is sure she can keep him in the dark.
This bit of intrigue feels like a contrived afterthought.
I'm convinced that there's a Vice President of Smoke Screens at NBC and that he called Gordon into his office as soon as the network bought Awake.
"So what's your gimmick?" asked the VP.
"Pardon?" replied Gordon.
"Your crackpot conspiracy. Every NBC drama has to have one."
"You're joking, right?"
"Well, most of our schedule is given over to reality shows, but on the dramas, there's always a cabal. You bet. Grimm and The Firm this year. The Event last year. Life the year before that."
"The show's already pretty dense," said Gordon. "How am I going to fit in a conspiracy?"
"You don't have to go into specifics," said the VP. "Just refer to it obliquely once every three weeks."
"Well, I don't have one," said Gordon angrily.
"See my girl on the way out. We keep a folder full of them. She'll fix you up. Oh, and Mr. Gordon," said the VP, placing his index finger alongside his nose, "Mum's the word, eh?"