That’s what ABC got when it hired the team of Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg to take the reins of its new show Life on Mars. Based on the BBC hit about a present-day cop named Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) who gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973, the series premieres Thursday night after taking a long and winding road to the air.
Appelbaum, Nemec and Rosenberg — who all worked together on ABC’s October Road — came aboard the show after David E. Kelley (Boston Legal), who owned rights to the show wrote a pilot script set in Los Angeles, agreed to step aside. The new showrunners then recast every regular role except O’Mara’s and moved the show from L.A. to New York. But through all the changes, Appelbaum says, they kept the vision of the BBC show in mind.
"The only thing we set out to do was to honor the spirit of that show, which was really extraordinary," he says. "… We’re doing the U.S. version — what speaks to the 1973 cop show? I don’t know what’s more evocative than 1973 New York."
Appelbaum, who also worked on Alias, and O’Mara talked about adapting the show and being true to the period in a recent conference call with reporters. Here’s some of what they had to say.
What are the "rules" of the show, as far as Sam communicating with 2008?
O’Mara: I’m sorry. Before you say anything can I just clarify that? 2008 communicates with Sam. He doesn’t communicate with 2008.
Appelbaum: A big part of the rules, and something that’s part of his journey, is he gets these dispatches and will continue to. But one of his frustrations — one of his goals is to be able to actually get a "two-way line" somewhere, which, you know, stay tuned for that but it’s, you know, it’s certainly part of his quest. And in terms of the bigger picture — literally the first scene of episode two is Sam in the squad room late at night, standing by a blackboard. Annie comes in and finds him and he’s written down these 13 things on the board, and 12 of them are different options … Sam’s doing what the audience would do which would say, you know, okay what the hell is going on here? … Am I in a coma? Have I traveled through time? Am I dead and in purgatory or heaven or hell? Is there some inter-dimensional ripple here?
You said at the TCA press tour in July that you made one significant change in the show’s mythology that could allow for a longer run than the 16 episodes the BBC had. When will we see that?
Appelbaum: At the second episode. Again, like I was just saying, that board — that blackboard that I just described sort of starts that. There are all these options as to what’s going on. There really wasn’t even much of a discussion of options [in the BBC show] beyond I’m insane, I’m in a coma or, you know, I’ve traveled back in time. We have 10 more options, all of which are possible. And then there’s always the X factor, which is what the real answer might be.
But even physically in terms of what you’re watching in the second episode, there will be an event — or a visitor, I should say — that will come into Sam’s life that alone will open up the mystery.
Have you studied shows like Mad Men for ways to be true to the period without it feeling like everything is brand-new to 1973?
Appelbaum: Yeah. The most important thing to us — I mean, I’m a huge fan of Mad Men, we all are — and if there’s one thing that was really, really important to us was not doing a sendup of the ’70s, not doing a parody of it but actually doing something that felt like it just sort of lived organically in the time. And I can say it because I can take the least amount of credit for it, but I think that that’s one of the great successes of the show. It’s not, you know, it’s not all about lava lamps and bellbottoms and that kind of stuff. It just feels sort of authentically like you’re there and we’re not … trying to make a wink-wink to the audience about it.
O’Mara: What I’ve been seeing is not just perhaps how 1973 actually was back then, but how 1973 was portrayed through the movies of the time — the 1973 look of a movie at that time like Serpico and The French Connection. So it evokes something sort of nostalgic and romantic while also being sort of gritty and dangerous.
Can you talk about what you’re hoping to do with the portrayal of Gretchen Mol’s character? [Mol’s Annie Cartwright is the only female officer in the precinct, a member of what was then called the Policewomen’s Bureau.]
Appelbaum: I would say it’s retaining some of the spirit of the original, but also she’s become this sort of … very specific thing to be a member of the Policewomen’s Bureau in 1973 New York. … That takes a lot of, a lot of balls, as it were, and there’s a great arc for her because in 1973, it’s when women were actually able to become detectives.
We’re not there — when the show starts that has not happened yet. She’s still part of this thing called the Policewomen’s Bureau, but she’s going to be put on this wonderful arc where she’s sort of in this subjugated role within the department and amongst her co-workers. But over the course of the season … she’s going to get to emerge as a detective, become one of them.
O’Mara: What I really like is that over the episodes in a fairly subtle way she starts to do her own detective work at various moments. And Sam … really starts to notice that she could actually become a detective if given a chance. And so that’s something that — that’s a sort of a bond that grows between them, and in a way they both support each other in their struggles. So that’s going to be a very interesting thing to explore.
How important are the music choices you make to the whole of the show?
Appelbaum: There’s a couple of rules that we made for ourselves internally. One is that we’re definitely not playing any songs that — our bandwidth is 1973 to 1970. Every now and again, we’ll dip past that. But … we’re being very loyal to — we’re not playing any songs on the show that weren’t out at that time, which is really fun actually. It’s a very specific little challenge and obviously there’s so much great music at that time.
But in saying that, with limited exception we really wanted to not make it a jukebox, greatest hits show. We were really looking to find … some more obscure songs from the era or at least songs that, you know, now are not in heavy rotation on classic-rock radio. … If it was just like big hit after big hit, it wouldn’t be in the spirit of [the show]. We’ve got to dig a little deeper.