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Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Life On Mars" Review: No Problems Here

It was one of the most anticipated dramas of the new season…

David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal”) was returning to TV with an American version of a popular British show about a present day detective who gets transported back to the 1970s.

But then Kelley decided to jump ship and ABC replaced him with the producing team from the cancelled (and critically despised) “October Road.” And after the pilot was filmed, the entire cast—except for the lead—was replaced and the setting was moved from LA to New York.

So to say that “Mars” was starting out with some issues would be an understatement. Fortunately, those issues did not manifest themselves on screen…

When we meet NYPD Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), he’s in pursuit of a murder suspect alongside fellow cop, Maya (Lisa Bonet), who also happens to be his girlfriend.

They get their suspect, but they have to let him go when he produces an airtight alibi. Maya, however wants to prove herself to everyone, so she starts following the suspect. The alibi unravels, but not before Maya is kidnapped by the murderer and Sam is forced to track them down before Maya is killed.

But just as Sam’s about to go into the suspect’s apartment building, he’s hit by a car. And when he wakes up everything’s different. The iPod he was listening to is now an eight-track (of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars,” of course). His SUV is now a classic muscle car. And in one of the most unsettling images I’ve seen on TV in a while, Sam comes face-to-face with the Twin Towers (a very fake looking towers, by the way).

The differences continue to surface when Sam returns to his precinct—the 125th. He’s surrounded by people he doesn’t know, including Det. Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli), Det. Chris Shelton (Jonathan Murphy) and his boss Lt. Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), who he instantly clashes with.

Also part of the 125th is Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol) who is a member of the Police Women’s Bureau. The detectives refer to her as “No Nuts” and only use her to talk to grieving relatives and other “womanly” duties. Sam, however, recognizes her intelligence and tries to involve her. He also confides in her about his 2008 life. Sam even gets a flash of that life when he hears doctors working on him in a hospital and later sees them on TV.

In 1973 (which is where Sam has ended up), a murder is committed just like the one in 2008 and using what he knows from the future, Sam is able to piece it together. He discovers the murderer was the neighbor of his 2008 murderer and that the 2008 murder was a copycat of the 1973 one.

Believing that the way to save Maya is to kill the 2008 murderer as a boy, Sam considers doing just that (or at least that’s what we’re led to believe) until he receives a message from Maya through his radio telling him she’s okay and that he needs to come home. Of course, Sam has no idea how to do that.

As the show ends, we once again see the Twin Towers, this time lit up at night…

Minus the unsettling, fake-looking Twin Towers, the show looks and sounds fantastic. The clothes, the cars, the music, it’s all beautifully done. But fortunately, there’s story to back up the pretty package.

Although the show’s premise is a little out there, you’re willing to go along with it because the cast pulls you in. I’m glad to see that they kept O’Mara after that first cast cut, because he’s an excellent leading man. Imperioli, Murphy and Keitel are solid in support, as is Mol in a rather thankless role. But Bonet is pretty much forgettable despite ABC’s attempts to shove “her return to TV” down our throats.

My biggest complaint with the show is the male supporting characters. I realize that detectives in 1973 would be male chauvinist pigs, but they bang that over our heads so much it gets annoying. I mean, couldn’t at least one of them call Annie by her real name?

Overall, though, I thought the show was solid and has lots of potential. However, I’ll wait one more episode before I decide whether to add it to my must-see list.

Why? Because according to “USA Today,” the premiere was almost a scene-for-scene copy of the British original. Which means we have yet to see the producers’ and writers’ own ideas.

If I was them, I would keep stealing the British show’s good ideas…

And by the way, that extremely catchy song that opened the show and has been used in all the promos is Chris Cornell’s “Ground Zero.” You can read about all the music from each episode at…

“Life On Mars” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC…

Photo Credit: Eric Liebovitz/ABC