The same way that AMC’s Mad Men helps us to better understand where we are by looking back at where we’ve been, so does ABC’s new series Life on Mars by taking us back to the good old days of the 70s, when cops settled things the old-fashioned way. A computer? Forget about it. Cell phone? Sell what? With no fancy gizmos to rely on, Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) must depend on his wits to help him solve crimes after he’s magically thrust back to 1973.
The last thing Tyler remembers is that his girlfriend (Lisa Bonet), to whom he can’t commit, has suddenly been abducted by a serial killer. In his panic to find her he has a violent accident that hurls him back in time. He doesn’t know if he’s dreaming (he assumes he is) or if it’s really happening, and why do people from the present keep talking to him?
Either way, he has to think on his feet and not appear completely insane. He does find one cop to confide in, one Annie Norris, a policewoman working in an era before they were taken seriously. Played by Gretchen Mol, Annie is the show’s most compelling character; it is interesting to watch Mol evolve as an actress from the girl who most looked like Marilyn into something more hardened and complex. Expect great things from her.
Harvey Keitel is also a scene-stealer as Lieutenant Gene Hunt, and winning the best hair and makeup award is Michael Imperioli as Detective Ray Carling. They are a motley crew, especially Keitel, who is playing up his own archetype. Keitel leaps off the screen like a ferocious lion at a circus; he belongs in the wild but he puts on a good show.
The show’s star, O’Mara, was last seen stalking Kyra Sedgewick in The Closer. He looks like someone who could have existed in the ‘70s, with his tightly wound curls. But he is more than just a pretty face. O’Mara more than pulls it off and becomes, finally, someone we will invest with our concern and involvement.
Life on Mars is the latest UK hit to be remade over here and purists will insist the UK version is far superior, just as they did with The Office. But like The Office, the makers of this version of Life on Mars have made it distinctly American by setting it in the 1970s, rather than the 1980s, where the UK series was set. Cop shows of the ‘70s were memorable for their stripped-down toughness and no-nonsense coppers who usually went around the law to solve crimes. Call it the Dirty Harry/French Connection effect.
Beware of the show’s infectious soundtrack. You won’t be able to stop humming tunes like The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” for starters. The show’s website features its own radio station where you can listen to the golden oldies they use on the show.
It looks like the most popular trend in television now is to play around with the narrative by mixing up time. This is true of many shows that blur the line between fantasy and realism. It might all add up to a renaissance of a kind, an era when television really did air some of its best yet.