“Awake” is about a man (Jason Isaacs) whose mind has constructed two different realities after he and his family are in a car accident. In one of them, his wife (Laura Allen) survives but his son (Dylan Minnette) dies; in the other the reverse is true.
He’s also a detective, and he finds that things he discovers in one world are related to cases in the other — not that he can exactly explain it to his colleagues, lest they think he’s crazy. It’s a show that likely will call for attentive viewing, but it doesn’t play as something so high-concept that viewers won’t be able to follow it.
Making “Awake,” though? That’s another matter. “It’s like solving a Rubik’s cube every week, but first you have to make it, then solve it,” creator Kyle Killen said recently when Zap2it visited the show’s set. “It’s been extraordinarily complex to piece together stories that feel like a weekly puzzle, but it’s also been really rewarding when we get that right.”
Killen (“Lone Star”) and fellow showrunner Howard Gordon (“Homeland,” “24”) talked about making the show — which premieres Thursday (March 1) on NBC — where Isaacs’ character, Michael Britten, will go in the first season and more.
Q: Do you know the show’s ending?
Kyle Killen: We have an ending for the first season. There’s this sort of meta-serialized story that we’re trying to tell. It really comes down to what happened to him that first night [of the accident] and him confronting and understanding that. The end of the series? It’s so many years away [laughs].
How does Michael sustain these two realities without falling apart?
Killen: We play with the idea that it does in some ways cause you to fall apart, that it is really difficult to hold up and sustain two completely different realities, especially as they begin to diverge. As each life begins to take on a flavor of its own, it’s hard to live in both those places. That actually becomes the drama of the show — that’s what makes it sustain.
Howard Gordon: [It’s about] what’s the price of the premise, of living in two worlds.
In the pilot, Michael is adamant that he doesn’t want to know which world is real. Does he remain that way?
Killen: He remains 100 percent adamant that he doesn’t want to give one or the other up. I think what we’re exploring in the first season is the price of needing to figure out what happened that night. How it was he came to be in that accident means looking back at the very thing he’s trying to avoid, which is the issue of what happened. And when you talk about what happened you risk knowing who lived and who died. … He’s conflicted about how much he wants to know and how much he needs to avoid knowing.
Is he the only person aware of both worlds?
Gordon: His shrinks [played by Cherry Jones and B.D. Wong] are aware of it, but yes — he’s the only one who traverses them. Everyone who lives in the respective worlds is obviously convinced theirs is the real one.
You shut down production for a little while. Why?
Gordon: Just because we could. We weren’t up against an airdate, and we had the post[-production] schedule and luxury of doing it. As Kyle said, it’s an extremely challenging show, and because we had the opportunity to get it as right as we could, we took it.
Michael’s mental state is in question in both realities, correct?
Killen: Yes. He pulls things off which, while the audience understands how the got from A to B to C, the people in each world, they see gaps. They don’t understand how he made the leaps he made, and he can’t always explain himself. So that, coupled with the stress and strain of trying to hold up these two universes, and his increasing curiosity about the consequences of that … they all take his character in directions that people who are as close to him as his partners can’t help but notice.
If he breaks his arm in one world, does it carry over to the other?
Killen: It would only be broken in the one.
Gordon: Finding that fault line and finding things that do translate from one to the other has been a fun exercise. There are things that do influence and appear from one to the other.
Does the show take a position on which world is real?
Killen: We actually protect the idea that both are real. We play what the character is protecting, which is the idea that there are always equally good arguments why either world could be real. That’s what he’s struggling to hold onto, and that’s what we embrace. We treat both like they’re real.
“Awake” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC.