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It's High-Concept, But Will It Keep You 'Awake'?

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The premise of NBC's new detective series, Awake, is about as high-concept as it gets. Jason Isaacs, one of the leads of Showtime's Brotherhood, stars as Michael Britten, who survives a horrible car crash intact. Well, his body is intact — but his mind, or at least his subconscious, is split.

He sees a therapist to deal with all this, while continuing to work police cases with his partner and help the car crash's other survivor deal with similar feelings of grief and guilt. But — and this is the gimmick on which the entire series hinges — Michael's existence is binary. In one world, his therapist is played by Cherry Jones, and his wife is dead. In the other, his therapist is played by B.D. Wong, and his son is dead. He's living one existence, and dreaming the other — but which is which? It's so tricky a concept, even his therapists have a lot of questions.

Right away, you can tell this is a lot less straightforward than, say, CSI: Miami. And pretty soon, the pieces of the two puzzles pile up almost absurdly, and even a scorecard won't help keep everything straight — especially since things Michael learns in one world often help him cope, or solve crimes, in the other.

Already, I'm suspecting, this series called Awake sounds like too much work. It was created by Kyle Killen, who concocted a different kind of dual-world drama for Lone Star, the short-lived Fox drama about a man with a secret other family life. Lone Star may have been short-lived precisely because it was so Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish — but Awake has one big thing going for it. One of its executive producers is Howard Gordon, whose credits include 24 and the current Showtime series Homeland.

Both of those dramas specialize in extended narratives, bold plot twists and shifting perspectives. And in four episodes screened for preview, Awake plays with all those elements and ups the ante by adding new ones to the mystery. Before long, there's a deadly conspiracy that involves some of the hero's superior officers — which is ripped straight from the 24 playbook — and, eventually, a serial killer who becomes fascinated with taunting and targeting the hero. That sounds, and plays, a lot like the Red John subplot on the CBS cop show The Mentalist -- but at least we know the Mentalist isn't dreaming.

After four episodes, it's my faith in the show's creators, and my affinity for puzzles, that keep me interested in Awake. And it's also the cast: Isaacs is a very likable lead, Wong and Jones are excellent as therapists with two very different styles, and two of the hero's police-force colleagues, played by Steve Harris from The Practice and Laura Innes from ER, are very strong as well.

But I'm undecided whether Awake will pay off. It has already presented a few scenes that seem to tip off which world is real — in a dream world, could the dreamer follow other characters? But if that's the logic, then we know the "real" world already. And though both therapists are encouraging Michael to drop the dream world and move on, who are they kidding? If he does that, there's no show.

And even if he doesn't, I'm still not sure how good a show Awake is. For a while, I'll keep watching — and I'll keep hoping that it turns into something that justifies its highly unusual concept. But I'm afraid, when it's all over, I could be dreaming.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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