On one of TV’s most highly anticipated new spring series, NBC’s Awake, Jason Isaacs plays detective Mark Britten, a talented cop who is in an auto accident that appears to have killed his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, who played the bisexual drug addict on Dirt) and teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette, Medium). Yet when he awakens each morning, he’s living one of two parallel lives: one in which his son survived, another where his wife survived. This new take on a police procedural is what Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, calls a sliding doors concept. “The implications of this are complicated,” says Salke. “But we think that the viewers will get hooked into the clever mythology in the way the stories overlap and affect each other in very interesting ways.”
As he moves between worlds, two very different therapists help Mark address his ingenious coping mechanism. It’s these conversations the surprisingly self-aware cop has with these two shrinks that fuel much of what’s wonderful about Awake. B.D. Wong, the gay actor who played the moral compass at the heart of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for a decade, is the confrontational therapist Dr. Lee. Cherry Jones, the lesbian actress best known as the president on 24 — and for being the first gay person to thank their partner when accepting a Tony Award, in 1995 — is warm and comforting Dr. Evans. Each struggles to gain control over Mark’s sanity, knowing with certainty that he or she is in the only “real” world. It’s the first time we’ve had a prime-time TV show that lets two openly gay actors play a cat-and-mouse game with each other — doing so as central characters in a storyline so completely unrelated to sexuality.
Jones and Wong are each sure of their own reality on-screen.
“I am sure that she is not right,” joked Wong of Jones’s shrink, at the Television Critics Association discussion in January. “That’s all I can be sure of. It’s really interesting and fun to play a character which is having an argument with someone who they never speak to.”
“Who they don’t even believe exists,” Jones interjected. The two, says Wong, are “constantly arguing the lack of existence of the other person and we don’t ever get to actually express these things to them — to the person who we actually are refuting the existence of…”
Since the duo — who never, of course, share screen time — film scenes back to back on the same stage, they share notes often and, teases Jones, “I get to tell him that I think his approach is ridiculous.”
“I think on a weekly basis, his interactions with his therapist tend to force him to question the reality of one side versus the other,” says creator and writer Kyle Killen. “I think he makes very … that he’s not particularly interested in that debate. He wants to live in both worlds as if they’re real, and he does his best to treat them that way, and we as writers do our best to force him to question that.”
Awake is produced by Howard Gordon (whose 2011 Showtime series, Homeland, was a bona fide smash) and features a handful of other talented actors (including Steve Harris and Wilmer Valderrama, who will surprise anyone expecting to see Fez from That ’70s Show). The only thing standing in the way of its becoming a hit is the audience perception it might be a bit too high-concept.
“[Marketing people] were talking about ‘How do we differentiate between the two worlds? Is there something we should do cleverly on the screen with different colors and different angles?’” says Isaacs. “And I played them … an iPhone clip of my 5-year-old daughter explaining the story to her friend in the park. So I think most people get it.”
Awake premieres March 1, on NBC.