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One talent show, one smart drama: two kinds of great TV

Two sides of the TV racket are under scrutiny today – not one good, one bad, just both sides.

All the power, money, creative urge and bombast of TV can go in any direction. Sometimes it's a celebrity-driven talent show that can, accidentally, be deeply revealing about the stew of influences that is contemporary popular culture. That's the talent/reality series ¡Q'Viva! The Chosen starting Saturday on TLN at 8 p.m.

Sometimes it's a brooding and deeply felt drama about the ethereality of life, work, home and family when the fundamentals of existence are put under terrible pressure. That's the drama Awake, starting Thursday (NBC, Global, 10 p.m.).

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Let's start with a searing memory of an event in January. It was a Saturday – at 7:30 a.m. The setting was a swank hotel in the L.A. area. It was the tail end of the TV critics' press tour. Univision was holding a breakfast press conference for ¡Q'Viva! The Chosen. Producers Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, once married but oh-so-recently separated, would be there.

Indeed they were, along with dozens of critics, grumpy at 7:30 a.m., in a packed room. J. Lo looked nice. Blue shiny leather dress and loads of cleavage. Anthony sat beside her. Once or twice they held hands. Cameras went clickety-clack, clickety-clack.

Critics who weren't grumpy were amused. Soon, as per the protocol, we'd get to ask questions about ¡Q'Viva! The Chosen, a splashy American Idol-style show seeking to find great Latin talent from 20 countries in North, Central and South America. No such luck. Up popped a Univision celeb who began to interview J. Lo, Anthony and the other producers on our behalf. Groans. Time passed.

Then, a memorable moment. Jonathan Storm of The Philadelphia Inquirer roared, "Excuse me! The critics would like to ask their questions!" This was ignored. The tension rose like a rocket. The Univision celeb refused to give way. Critics started to leave, some hissing insults at Univision. Briefly, there was bedlam. J. Lo tried to talk but wasn't sure what the heck was going on. Insurrection was what was happening.

But critics trying to leave were stopped in their tracks. In a corner of the room, a group of musicians, in what looked like a fake mountain hut, began playing. It seemed impolite to ignore them. Then, as their music-of-the-Andes performance drew to a close, critics zoomed again for the door. At that moment, the door burst open and a small army of dancers sashayed in, dancing, while some guys banged on drums like nobody's business.

It was a mad, fabulous floor show, in a room too small for it, at 8 a.m. A notable part of the routine had three lady dancers wrapped around one male dancer. As one lady clung for dear life, her legs wrapped around his waist, the other two bent over and the guy beat their bums like drums for a minute. Breathtaking and mind-boggling.

¡Q'Viva! The Chosen, which is mostly in English with some Spanish, is incredible TV. Some of the performances are electrifying. Most of the background material about the performers is treacle, but the show is an eye-popping wonderland of Latin pop culture.

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Now, while such talent shows as ¡Q'Viva! The Chosen are like catnip for some viewers, other viewers are, of course, looking for a fine fiction. That's Awake, an absolute peach of intelligent TV drama.

Created by Kyle Killen (who wrote the great, short-lived Fox drama Lone Star), Awake stars Jason Isaacs as Detective Michael Britten, a man existing in two worlds – in one, his son is dead, and in the other, his wife is dead.

The duality of the character's existence isn't a gimmick. There was a terrible car crash. Michael Britten is grief-struck, strung out and silently wailing in anger.

The thing is, viewers are never quite sure if, as Michael goes about his job as a cop, he's dreaming or anchored in reality. His world is so thoroughly split there are even two different shrinks who appear, each dealing with one of the traumas. One says, "I don't think I've seen a coping mechanism quite like it." Michael says, "It all feels completely real to me." But the shrink says, "You can't tell if you're awake or asleep at this very moment."

What's truly striking about Awake is how quiet it is. In many ways, it's a mystery – is the main character imagining everything? And throughout, as he works as a detective, there are criminal cases he must investigate dutifully as well. The viewer is drawn into that too.

But what's unfolding is a meditation on love, on grief and on the brain's intuitive reaction to loss. There is a formidable gravity to it. The main character (wonderfully and subtly played by Isaacs) is a person haunted by a damagingly traumatic experience and substituting a parallel world in order to survive. We all can wonder if that's how we might try to deal with the same experience of loss.

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Given its seriousness, it's possible that Awake won't last long. Watch it now for another illustration of how good TV storytelling can be. Watch ¡Q'Viva! The Chosen too. Watch both and be open to all the possibilities of the two sides of television.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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