One show may be the most ambitious attempt to reinvent the cop drama I have ever seen. • The other is a tart shot at re-creating the magic of a long-decaying hit — in this case, Desperate Housewives — substituting a satire of Texas' megarich for Housewives' broad swipe at upper-middle class suburbia. • What NBC's Awake and ABC's GCB have most in common is their appearance late in the 2011-12 TV season. The networks are making a third-quarter Hail Mary pass, hoping to bring ambitious new series to viewers outside the chaos of the typical fall debuts.
Kudos to NBC for even trying Awake, a drama centered on a cop recovering from a car accident who learns that, in one reality, his wife died in the crash and in another, his son perished. Each time he sleeps in one scenario, he wakes up in another, eventually slipping on color-coded wristbands to keep track of where he is.
The central question here, of course, is whether our hero cop Michael Britten (the always compelling Harry Potter alumnus Jason Isaacs) is confusing dreams with reality or actually living in two worlds. And if he is dreaming one of them (not likely, in my humble opinion), which one is real?
There are two reasons this setup almost works.
The format allows Britten to chase similar crimes in each reality, sprinkling clues across the two different scenarios to keep viewers guessing.
Any new cop show's biggest challenge involves presenting plausible mysteries in ways an increasingly savvy audience cannot anticipate. Since the hero here solves his puzzles using clues from two worlds, the audience has a tough time vaulting ahead.
The second reason Awake almost works is its cast and pedigree. Howard Gordon, mastermind behind Fox's 24 and Showtime's Homeland, is an executive producer. Isaacs — an Englishman with a talent for vaguely East Coast-sounding American accents — is joined by TV vets Cherry Jones (24), Wilmer Valderrama (That '70s Show), Steve Harris (The Practice), B.D. Wong (Law & Order: SVU) and Laura Innes (ER).
The result is a superbly acted drama that remains compelling, even when the plot gets creaky. And insinuations of a grand conspiracy behind Britten's car accident are the creakiest of conventions, along with the is-he-crazy/is-he-not question already used to diminishing effect in CBS' A Gifted Man.
ABC's GCB suffers none of those issues, centered on a former Mean Girl forced to go back to her Dallas hometown when her husband dies in a car crash while cheating on her, amid revelations he was a Bernie Madoff-style financial swindler.
If that setup tells you anything, it's that no joke is too big for this Texas-sized show, which casts Leslie Bibb (Iron Man) as Amanda Vaughn, the humiliated widow who tries to change her life, only to find the girls she wronged in high school remain a dysfunctional quartet aimed at revenge.
The humor is a bit more exaggerated and absurdist than Desperate Housewives, and the creators have gambled by making the four female friends in the show — led by Kristin Chenoweth — the villains.
And the show's dithering over its name, which was originally Good Christian B------ (rhymes with "witches"), then Good Christian Belles and now the incomprehensible GCB, hints at the kind of pulled comedic punches that often hobble network TV shows.
Chenoweth and her cronies spout Bible verses and attend church while plotting against their former classmate, who must fend off the amorous interests of some husbands and has a materialistic mother who seems airlifted from a Real Housewives of Dallas episode.
Like most network TV, it's contrived, broad and stereotypical. It apes the female-centered, soap opera-style rhythms of Desperate Housewives, while blowing them up to Texas-size proportions.
I'm still skeptical that that adds up to a series worthy of replacing Housewives when its run ends in May. But it is obvious ABC will try, slotting GCB after Housewives to take the listing time slot once occupied by Pan Am.
Despite their flaws, Awake and GCB show that network TV is capable of trying something different and ambitious when its back is against the wall.
Only wish they didn't make us wait until the end of the TV season to actually see it.
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521.