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On NBC’s intriguing ‘Awake,’ a cop lives in two tragic worlds

Michael (JasIsaacs right) lives two realities sRex (Dylan Minnette) is alive only one them.

Michael (Jason Isaacs, right) lives in two realities, and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) is alive in only one of them.

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‘AWAKE’ ★★★1/2

9 to 10 p.m. Thursdays on WMAQ-Channel 5

Updated: April 2, 2012 8:19AM

NBC has rolled out a dozen new shows since the fall. Some of them got what they deserved: a lifespan on par with the mayfly (“Free Agents,” “Playboy Club”). Others deserved better. The underappreciated and now canceled “Prime Suspect” comes to mind.

But NBC waited until midseason to debut its best new series, and I’m not talking about the overhyped musical drama “Smash.”

I’m talking about “Awake,” a police procedural that rises above a crowded genre thanks to a compelling psychological conceit and a lead character you can’t help but ache for.

Jason Isaacs, best known as bad guy Lucius Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” movies, does a mesmerizing turn as L.A. police detective Michael Britten, who was behind the wheel when his family got into a deadly car crash.

When Michael regains consciousness, he finds himself living in two distinct realities. In one, his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen, “Terriers”), survived while the couple’s only child died. In the other, the opposite is true; Michael’s teenage son, Rex (Dylan Minnette, “Lost”), made it, and they’ve lost the woman who held their family together.

At night, Michael might go to bed a widowed single father. In the morning, he wakes up next to his grieving wife. He can’t tell which of these dueling realities is bona fide. He feels just as awake in one world as he does in the other.

“I can assure you, detective Britten, this is not a dream,” says his police department-assigned therapist Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones, “24”).

“That’s exactly what the other shrink said,” Michael replies.

He’s referring to Dr. Lee (BD Wong, “Law & Order: SVU”), the therapist in his other reality. Lee, who has more of a tough-love approach than Evans when it comes to Michael’s situation, warns his patient that trying to maintain this double life will end in disaster.

“If you’re telling me the price of seeing them, having them in my life … is my sanity, that’s a price I’ll happily pay,” Michael said. “When it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to make progress.”

Michael’s home life and therapists aren’t the only things that are vastly different depending on which reality he’s in. The crimes he has to solve are different, too. As the detective wryly notes in episode two, he ends up “working twice as many homicides.”

The upside to this double workload is that his experiences in one world provide clues to help him solve crimes in the other. This results in a fair bit of head scratching by both of Michael’s cop partners, seasoned Detective Isaiah “Bird” Freeman (Steve Harris, “The Practice”) in one reality, and rookie Detective Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama, “That ’70s Show”) in the other.

“Awake” gives viewers the satisfaction of a police procedural — crime committed, crime solved — with the added drama of watching Michael navigate two worlds that are equally painful and indispensable.

This is a guy whose wife wants to move on with their lives but he can’t. To him, their son isn’t dead. Meanwhile, a motherless Rex has turned to his tennis coach (Michaela McManus, “The Vampire Diaries”) to fill the void left by Hannah. You get the sense that eventually Michael would do the same, which raises one heckuva sticky etiquette question: Is it OK to date another woman if your wife is still alive in one of your dual realities?

After watching four episodes, I can say that “Awake” has an addictive quality to it — albeit less so than “24” or Showtime’s hit “Homeland.” Both of those suspensers share a common bond with “Awake” in executive producer Howard Gordon, the showrunner for “24” and co-creator of “Homeland.”

“Awake’s” creator is Kyle Killen, whose previous projects include Fox’s short-lived 2010 con man drama “Lone Star” and the Jodie Foster/Mel Gibson movie “The Beaver.” That explains Killen’s Twitter profile: “I wrote that show that got canceled and that movie you didn’t see.”

I’m hoping he’ll have to update that after “Awake.”

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