I’d wager that about 90 percent, maybe more, of the audience for ABC’s Life on Mars premiere Thursday will be people who’ve never seen the British show on which it’s based.
For those people, I’d say this: Life on Mars is a promising new series, one that could turn out to be the best new show of the fall. (That’s faint praise this season, but still.) And to those of you who have seen the original — a small but passionate bunch who watched on BBC America or on DVD — I’d say this: Early signs are that the show’s producers have stayed faithful to the original’s spirit, made a couple of smart nods to the American locale, and generally have managed a pretty successful transition.
For all the changes Life on Mars went through on its way to the air — and there were a lot of them — the finished product feels remarkably coherent and sure of itself. That’s a rare thing for any pilot, let alone one that replaced nearly its entire cast — everyone but lead Jason O’Mara — brought in a new group of executive producers and moved the entire production from Los Angeles to New York.
All that happened to Life on Mars, and it all worked out. The cast, which in addition to O’Mara includes Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli and Gretchen Mol, is strong top to bottom, and writers Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg, avowed fans of the British show who took over the ABC version from David E. Kelley, seem to get what made the original so good and apply it to their version.
It helps that the first episode is a near-exact copy of the original’s premiere: NYPD Detective Sam Tyler (O’Mara) is tracking a serial killer in the present day when he gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. He might be in a coma or he might actually have traveled back in time, but either way he doesn’t take to the change too well, especially when he starts getting messages from 2008 through his TV.
He’s also still a cop, and when he reports for duty at the 125th Precinct he suffers a little bit of culture shock. Modern forensic science and computerized databases don’t exist yet, which means police work is based more on gut feelings, tough interrogation tactics and, in the case of Lt. Gene Hunt (Keitel) and several of his fellow detectives, a healthy disrespect for things like warrants.
To top it all off, the case Tyler was working in 2008 is tied into his first assignment in 1973, and his 21st-century girlfriend (Lisa Bonet) just might have fallen victim to the killer.
O’Mara, who did a strong guest turn on Grey’s Anatomy at the end of last season, plays the right mix of dislocation and determination as Tyler, and he holds his own against what for many people will be the more recognizable members of the cast. As the bare-knuckles Hunt, Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, National Treasure) isn’t quite the force of nature that Philip Glenister was in the British series. But he brings a different kind of intensity to the part, with a sense that he’s always seething just below the surface and more or less looking for a reason to go off. Ex-Sopranos star Imperioli, as Gene’s right-hand man, cops a fine Noo Yawk attitude, while Jonathan Murphy (October Road), as a younger detective, is a little more receptive to Sam’s unorthodox ideas.
As the only female officer in the precinct, Mol has to bear a raunchy nickname and a barrage of sexist language. She’s also probably the smartest cop in the room, which Sam recognizes and tries to encourage, not quite realizing that the culture of the department isn’t yet ready to admit a woman as an equal.
Filming the show in New York also feels like the right choice. The city’s politics were roiling along with the country’s, and films of the era, from Keitel’s Mean Streets to The French Connection, have such a prominent place in our pop-cultural consciousness that the show doesn’t need to do a ton of work to establish a sense of place. Which is not to say that the producers have been lazy — the details look right, and the music, a mix of songs from ’73 and the previous few years, is spot-on.
The biggest question facing ABC’s Life on Mars is how long it can sustain Sam’s central dilemma. The British show settled what really happened to Sam and wrapped things up in 16 episodes; if it succeeds, ABC will run more episodes than that just in this season. The producers say they’ve worked out a way around that, and we’ll see how it plays out in future episodes. I hope they’re right, because in this relatively barren fall season, we could use a new favorite show.
Life on Mars premieres at 10 p.m. ET Thursday, Oct. 9.