On some level all great stories start with: “What if?’’
In the intriguing new NBC drama “Awake,’’ premiering tonight at 10, the question is, “What if a cop was in a terrible car accident with his wife and son, and when he came to, he discovered that the tragedy had split his life in two?’’
In one reality, LAPD detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) is picking up the pieces with his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), in the wake of their teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette) dying in the crash. In the other, it’s Michael struggling to connect with Rex because it is Hannah who perished. Britten remains uncertain which reality is a dream and which is his waking life. He just knows when he “awakes’’ he is in one of those two worlds and he’s not interested in letting either one go.
Helping him untangle his psychological conundrum are two therapists: Cherry Jones (“24’’) plays the slightly more supportive Dr. Judith Evans and B.D. Wong (“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’’) is the more confrontational Dr. John Lee, each intent in their way on forcing Britten to give up his fantasy and deal with his grief. (Both therapists make a case for being in the “real’’ reality, and there is a fun element that has the two of them arguing each other’s methodologies through Britten as he ping-pongs from one couch to the other.)
Since he has returned to the beat, Britten has begun seeing crossover clues on the cases he is working that provide valuable — and sometimes too convenient — insight. This new intuition draws the skepticism of his partners. In one strand, it is friend Detective Isaiah Freeman (Steve Harris of “The Practice’’); and in the other, rookie Detective Efram Vega (Wilmer Valderrama), who has been promoted to baby-sit and inform on him to the higher-ups. (Valderrama also plays a beat cop in the other reality. This brings the total of “That ’70s Show’’ regulars back in primetime to three for viewers playing along at home.)
While the premise sounds confusing, and sometimes is when it comes to the details of the dueling crimes-of-the-week, the producers and writers do a good job of keeping the worlds distinct and vivid, including some neat visual flourishes and subtle color coding. (Creator Kyle Killen is clearly curious about the dual-lives concept, since it also played a part in his critically hyped flop “Lone Star.’’)
It also helps tremendously that Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy to “Harry Potter’’ fans) is rock solid and, in a rarity for a police procedural, given a wide spectrum of emotions to play. The British actor not only nails his American accent, but his inner worlds flicker perceptibly across his face. Whether reeling from confusion at his fractured existences, displaying tenderness with his wife and son, or analytically examining the evidence on the job, Isaacs is compelling.
The rest of the cast is also up to the task, with Valderrama in particular impressing in his transformation from goofy Fez on “That ’70s Show’’ to impatient-yet-green detective, and Jones sparkling as the shrink who is almost giddily fascinated by Britten’s issue.
The highest compliment that can be paid to “Awake’’ is to admit that when I got the screener that contained the first four episodes, I gobbled them all up in almost one sitting. I wanted to see what happened next. Even though some late twists that pop up in the second and fourth episodes (one of them more confusing than illuminating) caused a slight tremor of fear in terms of the overarching story line, I’m still curious to discover the rest of the answer to the central “What if?’’ of “Awake.’’Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.