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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2008-2009 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot - or in this new post-strike/straight-to-series world, reading the pilot script. We'll start with the ones that were actually filmed and move on to the others in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, it's even more important to remember that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. Plus: as an added bonus, we've got a backlog of passed over pilots - some from this season, some from last season - we'll be tackling as well. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
LIFE ON MARS (ABC)
(written by David E. Kelley; directed by Thomas Schlamme; TRT: 50:18)
The network's description: ""Life on Mars" is based on the BBC series created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah. The series revolves around Sam Tyler, a modern-day police detective who, after a car crash, mysteriously finds himself transported back to 1973 and still working as a detective."
What did they leave out: My memory of the original series is a little fuzzy, but as far as I can tell this is essentially the same script as the pilot to the U.K. version (except of course it's set in Los Angeles instead of Manchester). Incoming executive producers Scott Rosenberg, Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum however are expected to recast and reshoot the pilot so it's not clear how much of this will carry over.
The plot in a nutshell: Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) knows Colin Raimes (Patrick Wenk-Wolff) did it. He killed Lauren Chester. He kidnapped Beth Mitchell but she got away. They found his diary admitting as much. But there's a small problem - he didn't. His lawyer (Richard Benjamin) confirms Raimes was in lock up in Van Nuys during the period Beth was taken. Undeterred, Sam sends his fellow detective - and girlfriend - Maya ("Battlestar Galactica's" Stephanie Jacobsen) back to Raimes's house to find some answers. It's there that she too goes missing. Sam then, distracted by the news, nearly gets himself killed in a car accident - only to be hit head on when he gets out to inspect the damage. And so, after drifting into unconsciousness - his final memory being David Bowie's "Life on Mars," the last song he heard coming from his iPod - Sam wakes up... 35 years earlier in 1972, dressed as if he belongs there and his car still blasting "Mars" - this time from its 8-track. Unsure if he's crazy or part of some elaborate practical joke, he stumbles across Detective George Randall (Lenny Clarke in full Lenny Clarke mode) who informs him he's the newest transfer to the RHD of the LAPD. George takes him back to the station, where Sam starts to melt down over said events - incurring the wrath (and fist) of the unit's chief, Gene Hunt (Colm Meaney), but also earning a few kind words from the only female of the group, Annie Cartright (Rachelle Lefevre). After getting situated (as much as one can for a man out of time), Hunt asks Sam to take a look at their latest case - a girl who went missing... on the same exact street Maya did in 2007. From there things get even weirder for Sam - he begins to hear hospital equipment, the sound of Maya calling out to help him and the voices of doctors discussing his condition. Is he in a coma in 2007 and dreaming a new life in 1972 or has he been sent back to learn Raimes's true origins so he can go back and help Maya? And if it's the latter - how does he get back? Along the way he's educated in '70s era policework (the sexism, the "who needs a warrant?" attitude) while Annie and company both marvel at and mock Sam's talk about DNA evidence and profiling. And while he eventually gets the answers to his questions about Raimes, the question of where he really is will continue to haunt Sam for the time being.
What works/What doesn't: The good news is that the genius of the original show - how his 1972 cases are informed by his 2007 knowledge and vice versa, not to mention the show's central question (is he really in 1972 or not?) - has made a seamless transition across the pond. It's been a while since I saw the U.K. incarnation but there's nothing here that immediately strikes as heresy when compared with that version. O'Mara, so good in last year's failed effort "Marlowe," brings a crazed, manic energy to Sam Tyler that lends itself to a slightly different interpretation of the character, one I'm curious to learn more about. The show also wisely keeps the "hey, it's 1972!" anachronisms (Pan Am, The Godfather, The French Connection, etc.) to a minimum so that it feels like 1972 without screaming that it is. Overall though, it's hard to really dig deep into how I feel about this show since it's very much still a work in progress, from a production (most of the SFX is incomplete to the point you can still see crew members holding the green screens up) and conceptual (Rosenberg, Nemec and Appelbaum are redeveloping the now Kelley-less show) standpoint. I can tell you though that "Mars" shows a lot of potential - particularly when it comes to its fresh (to U.S. audiences anyway) take on the procedural. The show's pseudo-paradox that Sam is investigating cases 35 years before they happen opens up plenty of new avenues for what has become a very well-worn genre. Add to that its cult show undercurrent of a man who may or may not be transported to the past and you have the potential for an amicable "Office"-esque transition to the States. Or it could go the "Coupling" route. I've seen enough to have high hopes it will be the former...
The bottom line: ...but only time will tell if it's that or the latter.