Greetings to the New Show: “Life on Mars”

It’s time to lead off with another one in my seemingly endless series of shameful admissions, but for such an avowed Anglophile as myself, this one really hurts: I’ve never seen a single episode of the original British version of ABC’s new series, “Life on Mars.” And, frankly, I’m really, really embarrassed about it, because, boy howdy, is it a show that’s right up my alley.

Here’s the premise of the British version: Sam Tyler, Detective Chief Inspector with the Greater Manchester Police, is hit by a car in 2006…and when he wakes up, he’s in 1973. Not only that, but he’s a Detective Inspector with the Manchester and Salford Police Criminal Investigation Department. That’s right: he’s still Sam Tyler…and people in 1973 know him as such. So the question at hand is whether or not he’s traveled in time or if this is all just an elaborate fantasy concocted by his mind while he’s in a coma.

Totally awesome concept, no? I don’t know how I missed out on it, especially since it also takes its title from a David Bowie song, but on the up side, it means that I can appreciate the American version a lot more, since I won’t be constantly comparing it to the British version or complaining that it’s a word-for-word Xerox, problems which kept me from latching onto “The Office” right away.

And from what I hear, I would indeed be making such complaints, since virtually every review I’ve read of ABC’s “Life on Mars” have noted how the first episode is very much a straight-up copy of the British incarnation…substituting New York City for Manchester, of course…and, yet, as I watched, I was taken as much with the performances of the actors as I was the concept of the series.

Okay, so here’s how things go down.

Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) is working a case in 2008 with his partner / girlfriend, Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet), when she’s kidnapped. While in the process of trying to hunt down the perp and rescue Maya, Sam is hit by a car…and, as noted, he wakes up in 1973. It will not surprise you, then, what New York landmarks immediately catch his vision and leave him both utterly dumbstruck yet instantly convinced that he is indeed in the past. When he heads back to the station that he once called home, he meets the new characters that will become part of his day-to-day life.

There’s Lt. Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), a loudmouth, tough-as-nails son of a bitch who’s the sterotypical ’70s cop…you know the “fuck the rules” mindset I’m talking about, where he doesn’t give a damn about no stinking warrants and doesn’t hesitate for a heartbeat before beating the shit out of a suspect…and they couldn’t have found a more perfect guy to play the role. Keitel’s delivering his lines like he’s playing Mr. White all over again, and no matter how ridiculous the dialogue might be on occasion, you’re grinning at every word. There’s Det. Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli) and Det. Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy), both of whom view Sam as a complete nutjob, but on the flip side, there’s Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol), who doesn’t really know what to make of Sam but accepts him more readily because, unlike the other guys in the department, he’s used to women being capable police officers…which, in ’73, was a positively laughable concept.

There’s a tie between the case Sam was investigating in 2008 and the first one that comes his way in 1973, which sends us onto a path where a great deal made of the differences in police technology between ’73 and ’08. When Chris mentions that it’ll take a couple of weeks to get prints back from the lab, Sam is incredulous…and Ray nods in what he thinks is agreement with Sam, praising the speed. The guys have absolutely no tolerance for Sam’s attempts to incorporate Annie’s abilities into the investigation. The mystery about whether or not this is dream or reality is left a bit more ambiguous here than in the British version, which is no surprise, since the American producers have already confirmed that they’re not necessarily going to have the series follow the same route as the show which inspired it.

There are a lot of great music-related jokes in the script, including a shot of Bowie’s Hunky Dory on 8-track and a trip to a record store where Sam reveals, “I bought my first Hall and Oates album…uh, I mean, my first Led Zeppelin album here,” then goes on a brief rant about the change in music formats and how MP3s sound worse than vinyl. The show’s soundtrack is fantastic, but my first thought is that it’s going to be ridiculously cost-prohibitive to release the show on DVD as anything remotely resembling “complete,” with all of the songs intact.

If you enjoyed “Journeyman” but hated all that darned jumping from this time period to that time period, at least this one more or less limits its travel between ’73 and ’08, and if you like the fun “here’s how things used to be” feel of “Mad Men” and “Swingtown,” then you’ll dig that aspect of “Life on Mars.” In fact, I’ll go ahead and admit it outright: “Life on Mars” might be my favorite new drama of the season. As much as I enjoy the show that CBS is programming opposite it (“Eleventh Hour”), it’s gonna be rough to steer me away from the curiosity that the developing of this series’ concept and the performance of its ensemble inspires.


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