October 9, 2008

‘Mars’ Gets Off to Stellar {Ndash} but Not Alien {Ndash} Start

By Robert Bianco

There's only so much credit you can give a copy.

Tonight's premiere of Life on Mars is one of the best new hours of TV this fall -- as it should be, considering it's a virtual scene-for-scene remake of a terrific British original. It's a relief ABC didn't bungle the transfer, but not exactly cause for critical celebration.

If we can't celebrate, we can at least be cautiously optimistic. Let's start with the strength of the source material, which is built around an incredibly clever conceit. Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) is an NYPD detective who gets hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up on the force in 1973; is he time-traveling, crazy or in a coma?

The storytelling openings are abundant. The premise allows the show to work its way through an overlaying sci-fi mystery, as Sam tries to figure out how he got there and how to get home. It also lets the writers indulge in near-countless culture-clash jokes and situations, from the hideous clothes and hair to changing social attitudes. On that front, they do overdo: The treatment of the female cop comes across as cartoonish, even in the macho world of a police station.

Still, what may matter more to viewers is the way this time trip frees the writers from the constraints of modern police procedures and TV procedurals -- the emphasis on forensics and technology that turns so many mysteries into an episode of Mr. Wizard. These cops solve crimes the old-fashioned way: by beating the truth out of witnesses.

Happily, the American version -- a second try, after an original pilot was scrapped -- makes mostly wise decisions, starting with trusting the show to O'Mara. He's off to an excellent start, particularly in grounding the story by keeping his reactions rooted in reality.

The supporting cast has less to do tonight, but except for a slightly vacant Lisa Bonet, they do what they have to well. It's a strong ensemble, led by Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol and Harvey Keitel. And if Keitel does seem a bit old for his role, the gruff commander who becomes Sam's de facto partner, he compensates by being Harvey Keitel, an actor you just want to watch.

The question is, for how long? The British series ran only 16 episodes, and even it had trouble maintaining interest in its central question. The longer you extend that question and the more complicated it becomes, the less likely it is that the answer will be satisfactory.

And while we're worrying about the future, it seems fair to note that the network's replacements for David Kelley -- who did the first version -- are the producers of October Road, a show so badly written, it made you wish you were time traveling. True, this time, they copied well. Now let's see what they can create.

In life, that's the real test.

Life on Mars

ABC, tonight, 10 ET/PT

*** out of four (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>