"Awake" is the most compelling new drama on TV. It's also the most ambitious.
Following a horrible accident, Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) finds himself living two very fractured realities: In one, his wife Hanna (Laura Allen) died and he's left to raise his son as a single father, and in the other, his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) died, and he and his wife are left childless. He has different police partners in each reality (Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama), and two different therapists (B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones), both trying to convince him that their reality is the real one.
So which one is real and which is a dream? (And before you say you've figured it out -- that ever-popular theory that he himself is dead, a ghost or in a coma -- I've been promised that those are not options.) As the audience, do we even want to know? (Read Mo Ryan's review of "Awake" here.)
I caught up with creator and executive producer Kyle Killen and showrunner Howard Gordon (of "24" and "Homeland" fame) and the cast, including Isaacs, Allen, Minnette, Jones, Wong, Harris, Valderrama and Michaela McManus (who plays Tara, a comfort to Rex and Michael in the reality where they're left without their mother and wife, respectively).
Keep reading to hear about solving the show's biggest mysteries, the dual realities and how this show and these characters are still very relatable, even in the presence of one very strange and special guest star: A penguin.
What do you say to those people who are already guessing, without seeing more than a trailer, "He's dead!" or "He's in a coma!"
Jason Isaacs: "Smart friends of mine -- well, I thought they were smart -- would say to me, 'I know. Actually what it is is he's in a coma' or 'Actually what it is is they're both dead.' I don't know why anybody thinks that they know, but I'm thrilled that that's the game people will be playing at home, trying to guess. And we will play with their expectations, hopefully in an enjoyable and not a torturing way."
Cherry Jones: "Oh he's alive. [Laughs.] Those blue eyes?"
Do you think viewers will start to take sides?
B.D. Wong: "I think that the design of the show, at this point, is that they won't -- they will be invested equally in him as the fulcrum to these two emotional relationships, and the possibility of a new relationship on one side, and the conflict of this bizarre concept of infidelity in a situation in which you're not really sure whether you're even a widower or not. There's always going to be things tugging at the audience, and competing for their attention in some ways."
Cherry Jones: "From the get-go with this, it's equal -- the crime story and the psychological trauma of this man that he's confronting daily and refusing to let go of. It's interesting to have a show where someone is so traumatized that they're keeping two people alive -- one of whom has died -- which means that, at the same time, he's having to mourn two people. I'm of an age where I've lost a number of people in my life now, and I think I see the show in a way that perhaps younger people don't, but everyone imagines what it would be like to lose a loved one."
The concept of the show is big, but Michael Britten is still a very relatable guy.
Jason Isaacs: "It's completely universal. He has a unique situation, but through that situation, we can explore what it's like to be a father, what it's like to be a husband, what it's like to reboot a marriage if you didn't get it right the first time, and what it's like to explore your subconscious. We've all got a subconscious, we've all got dreams, we all have fears and anxieties and hopes. And in one of his worlds, those are made manifest -- he just doesn't know which one."
Britten has told his wife that he "dreams" of a life with his son still alive ... how does this begin change their marriage?
Laura Allen: "Hanna just needs to move forward ... So she applies to law school and she starts to want them to move to Oregon, which of course is going to cause a problem. But I think it's very accurate of people who, God forbid, suffer the loss of a child. There is a new rift in the marriage and you don't cope in the same way at the same time."
Dylan Minnette: "Rex doesn't even know about the dreams. We're on Episode 7 now and Rex doesn't know yet. I'm really interested, when and if he ever does know, how he's going to handle it. I don't think he'll handle it well. He's already grieving the loss of his mother, and can barely communicate with his dad as it is, but thinking that his dad is crazy and hearing about his mom even more is just going to make it worse."
Jason Isaacs: "When you first find him in the pilot, he absolutely wants things to stay the same. He has two worlds and he doesn't know which one is real, and he's fine with that because he's not stupid -- he knows that one of them must be a dream, and he must deal with the loss of his son or his wife, and he doesn't want to engage with that loss. But that will take its toll on him, and there will be consequences. There's a price to pay for that kind of denial ... so he will change his attitude to it."
How are his partners affected, especially by the fact that he's now getting clues for cases, seemingly out of thin air, but really from another reality.
Howard Gordon: "For the first time, this sort of superpower presents itself in the pilot. While he knows that he's living in two worlds ... he is suddenly finding himself with this new insight, and how he uses it and how he looks for things, and how his attention is drawn to certain things that appear to him in one world and that he pursues in the other."
Steve Harris: "We were partners, and in both realities, initially, we were partners. So I've been his partner now for 15 years or so. When you're partners, often they're closer than some of your family. They're as close as your wife. But for me, now he's coming up with this stuff. After 15 years of marriage, basically, it'd be like, 'OK, now you're trying something new in the bedroom, and I don't know what's going on.' [Laughs.] That's what's going on, time and time again. I have to question where he's taking me, because this isn't the way we've always done it."
Britten's partners are both in each reality, in different roles. Is it possible that we'll see your characters in the other reality?
B.D. Wong: "It's totally possible. And that's why we like this show -- the possibilities of the show and all the unanswered questions of the show are what make it so interesting and give the kind of superfan all of this detail to scrutinize and blog about and talk about ... they're just setting up these revelations that will play out over this season or seasons. We're not even always aware of them, and I think that makes it really fun."
Cherry Jones: "I keep thinking of the image of an emotional hall of mirrors -- he just keeps looking down it."
Michaela McManus: "I can't wait for that. I'm really excited to see what happens with that. We've established in the pilot episode that Tara and Hanna know each other -- they have sort of a past -- and I would love to see me interacting, in Hanna's world, having a completely different kind of relationship with Britten. That would be very interesting."
Um, there's a penguin?
Kyle Killen: "I'm excited that this world has a penguin in it this week. [Laughs.] It's advertised in the pilot that it must be extraordinarily difficult for your mind to construct an entire alternate universe, keep all the details straight, keep it separate from this one and protect you from ever knowing which is real, and that over time, there's probably consequences to that. And in one episode, you spend some time with a penguin on one of your cases."
Jason Isaacs: "Well, why not? Don't you have bizarre things happen in your dreams? Sometimes you wake up and go, 'Where did I get that from?' And at some point, that day later or a week later or a year later, you go, 'Oh, now I know where it came from!' And that's our plan. The thing is not one giant, long acid trip, but on the other hand, it is true that the writers' imaginations are free to roam vividly. But there is a reason for the penguin."
Laura Allen: "In the penguin episode, we see Dr. Lee, B.D. Wong, outside of the office dealing with a case in the field, so it's very possible for us to have interaction with the therapists. The penguin shows up at the car accident site, too."
B.D. Wong: "I was shocked that I got out of the office, and that I was integrated into the procedure, into the case. The one thing about that episode that I liked, that you experienced in your office, Cherry, was the presence of something extremely anachronistic -- a thing that was in your office with him, that he saw that you didn't see." [Note: Later, it was revealed to be the penguin.]
Cherry Jones: "Oh yes, now that was juicy."
B.D. Wong: "Actually, we don't know yet. I mean, they could have told us it was a penguin and then CGI'd some other thing in."
Cherry Jones: "Like a leprechaun."
Is there such thing as too smart for TV?
Howard Gordon: "I don't think so. I really don't. I've always said, 'Never underestimate an audience.' I think if it's good, people will watch it."
Kyle Killen: "I think 'too smart for TV' tends to get slapped on things that people liked and failed. It becomes the reason. But 'The West Wing' was a huge success, and it was extraordinarily smart, well-written ... a bunch of policy-wonk stuff. The fact that that lasted as long as it did sort of belies the notion."
B.D. Wong: "I think that the show is designed to be compelling and complex, but extremely accessible. It's not supposed to be so heady or complicated that it's hard to watch or that you have to analyze it while you're watching it. It's user-friendly, it's just really different."
Kyle Killen: "The Internet has certainly shown that people are hyper-observant television viewers, so I would say this show certainly rewards people who invest in television that way. If that's something that you enjoy, I think it offers those little clues and hints, and you'll see those things woven together by the last episode of the season."
You set up a lot of questions to answer -- how do you decide when viewers should get those answers, or at least hints?
Kyle Killen: "The question of the crash ... that is the story of the first season. I think if you can stick with us for 13 [episodes] that you'll get an answer on that. To us, the issue of what's real and what's not ... it's not really a question the show is trying to answer because it's actually a question the character is trying to avoid the answer to. The drama and the conflict comes from seeing a person who's trying to live in two diverging universes."
Wilmer Valderrama: "It's a very mysterious and unpredictable and emotional journey, for every character, and it all started with this accident. So the meaning of this accident, as we discover what this accident was all about and how and why it happened, you are going to get closer and closer to understanding where Michael Britten is going and where he needs to be."
As actors, do you want to know yet which reality is real and which is a dream?
Jason Isaacs: "Oh, I know. I know where we think we will go with it, should we ever get there, and Kyle knows and Howard knows, but I don't think we've even told our wives."
B.D. Wong: "I don't want to know actually."
Cherry Jones: "I don't either."
Michaela McManus: "I went into the pilot thinking I'd be wondering the whole time what's the real world and what's the dream world, but by the end, I really didn't want to know because I was so invested in both these worlds. My heart ached for this man and what he was going through, and I didn't want him to lose anybody. As an audience member, that's how I feel, but as Tara, I'm very much alive and living a very real life in Rex's world."
Dylan Minnette: "As a viewer and as an actor on the show, I don't think I really want to know. I want to go along for the ride as much as everyone else is. I'll just be a couple scripts ahead."
"Awake" premieres Thurs., Mar. 1, 10 p.m. EST on NBC.
What to watch this week:
Watch the full "Awake" pilot here: