Despite behind-the-scenes turmoil, there is life in ABC's "Life on Mars."
A cop show with a mystery at its core, "Mars" tells the story of 2008 New York detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) who gets hit by a car and wakes to find himself in 1973. Is he a time traveler? In a coma? Something else? Viewers will have to stay tuned to find out.
The show's pilot episode is nearly identical to the British original that aired on BBC America, right down to some shots and music cues. The new American version moves a little faster, which may sacrifice some of the subtlety of the original, but overall this first episode is a faithful adaptation.
- Starring: Jason O'Mara, Gretchen Mol
- When: 10 tonight, ABC.
The big question is how to keep viewers tuning in without resolving Sam's dilemma. He hears a voice mention "persistent vegetative state" several times in the premiere, lending credence to the idea that he's in a coma. That might have worked for the 16-episode British series but not for an American show designed to run 22 episodes a season for several years.
Producers said in July that future episodes will introduce other possibilities for what's happened to Sam beyond time travel, coma and lunatic as a way to help sustain the show over the long haul. The show's immediate appeal is seeing a 2008 cop trying to solve crimes using pre-DNA 1970s techniques with '70s rock as the soundtrack.
The American "Mars" is somewhat less gritty (not as much cigarette smoking) and more progressive. Annie "No Nuts" Norris (Gretchen Mol) is a member of the Bureau of Police Women but as Sam observes, she's a "closet feminist," more so than her analogue in the British series.
O'Mara, an Irishman who's been trying to break through on American television for the better part of a decade ("The Agency," "In Justice," etc.), is more of a tough guy than John Simm, the actor who played Sam in the British original. But that fits not only the American cop sensibility but also the New York City setting.
Michael Imperioli, late of "The Sopranos," ably plays another period cop and Harvey Keitel is especially well cast as the harsh but effective precinct leader, Lt. Gene Hunt, who doesn't shy away from roughing up suspects.
"Life on Mars" was originally adapted for American audiences by veteran producer David E. Kelley. O'Mara starred in Kelley's "Mars" pilot, which was set in Los Angeles. Kelley relinquished control this summer and the new producers, fresh off ABC's canceled "October Road," pulled up stakes and moved the series to New York and fired the original cast (Irishman Colm Meaney played Hunt in Kelley's version).
Only time will tell if this version of "Mars" will fly. Producers were wise to put the 2008 relationship between Sam and girlfriend Maya (Lisa Bonet) in the opening minutes since the "Mars" lead-in is the relationship-heavy "Grey's Anatomy." But once Sam goes back in time, the show won't have him traveling back to 2008 anytime soon. We'll see whether the 1973 relationships he develops are enough to sustain interest among the "Grey's" crowd.