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 V.17 No.43 | October 23 - 29, 2008 

Idiot Box

Copping an Attitude

“Life on Mars” on ABC

Feature film producers aren’t the only ones so starved for ideas they’re snapping up every foreign and classic product in reach with the intention of doing a remake. This fall’s TV season is rife with remakes both domestic (“Knight Rider,” “90210”) and imported (Australia’s “Kath & Kim,” England’s “Eleventh Hour”). Though it’s doubtful many American viewers are familiar with “Kath & Kim,” there are probably a few out there who recognize ABC’s Americanized cop series “Life on Mars” thanks to good old BBC America.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts- and Emmy-winning series began airing in England on BBC One in January 2006. It quickly became a word-of-mouth hit and garnered a major cult audience when it was rebroadcast on BBC America starting last year.

Like the last BBC crossover, “The Office,” ABC’s “Life on Mars” sticks rather closely to the path laid out by the original--at least initially. Jason O’Mara (“In Justice,” “Men in Trees”) is our hard-luck New York cop Sam Tyler. Struck by a car while chasing a serial killer in 2008, Sam wakes up in the year 1973. While trying to determine if this is a dream, a hallucination or a really weird case of time travel, our hero slowly and reluctantly adjusts to life in the funky ’70s. Sam’s still a New York cop, but the ’70s aren’t as scientifically advanced or politically correct as he’s used to. DNA tests are decades away. Beating confessions out of suspects is common.

The cast for this newest “Life on Mars” is impressive. We’ve got Harvey Keitel as Sam’s badass boss; Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”) as an uncooperative colleague; Gretchen Mol (3:10 to Yuma) as the sole female in the testosterone-heavy precinct house; and Lisa Bonet (from “The Cosby Show,” don’tcha know) as Sam’s timelost fiancée. Not bad for primetime.

Stylistically, the American version can’t really match the grit of the British version. Referencing the classic, hard-boiled British cop show “The Sweeney” (1975), BBC’s “Life on Mars” is as much a rumination on the history of TV cop shows as anything. The original is a real lesson in compare and contrast between past and present. ABC’s “Life on Mars” feels more straight-out gimmicky, relying on nonstop music (Bowie! T-Rex!), a strange sepia color palette (All of ’70s NYC was rust-colored!) and some too-obvious costumes (hippies, hippies everywhere!) to set its temporal mood.

Storywise, the show has burned through its serial killer subplot rather quickly, leaving Sam to combat random crimes of the week. It’s not completely different than the original, but the original demonstrated more patience in its storytelling, doling out the backstory over an entire season and teasing Sam’s mysterious predicament with some genuinely creepy imagery. Still, if the American writers can stay on target and keep scripts half as smart as the British ones, this “Life” has a decent shot at success.

“Life on Mars” airs every Thursday night at 9 p.m. on KOAT-7.

 
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