Let's do the time warp again. And again and again.
The Great Gods of Hollywood apparently are convinced that the people they fly over (i.e.: you) have an obsessive fascination with time travel: The stranger-in-a-strange-land exploits of an Average Joe suddenly plunked down in another era, another atmosphere. At least one TV network seems to bite on such a script nearly every season.
NBC's Quantum Leap may have been the most successful effort of recent vintage, lasting four seasons in the '90s, although one could argue its appeal was due less to its "leaping" ability through time and space than to superb casting and the possibility that on any given week Scott Bakula might show up as a woman. On the whole, however, history suggests that such shows simply don't fare well. NBC's most recent endeavor, last season's Journeyman, barely got the chance to find out what year it was in before getting canceled. FOX's New Amsterdam, last fall's saga of a New York City detective who'd been around for 400 years? Timed out in eight episodes.
Say this for the networks, though: They don't give up easily. Now comes Life on Mars, premiering at 10 p.m. tomorrow (Oct. 9) on ABC (Channel 7 in Detroit), possibly the most anticipated debut this fall next to Fringe on FOX. The premise sounds completely logical: New York police detective Sam Tyler (Irish actor Jason O'Mara) is hit by a car and when he regains consciousness, he's in 1973. Happened to you last week, right? But say this for the networks too: It looks like they're beginning to realize their shortcomings.
Well, that may not be entirely true. NBC did exhume Knight Rider last month, after all. However, somebody in the bowels of ABC apparently realized that, like Quantum Leap, even the flimsiest storyline has a chance to succeed if the casting is superior.
Many shows undergo a cast change or two before their debut, but few receive overhauls as extensive as the one given Life on Mars. When Philip Glenister and John Simm, stars of the British series upon which the show is based (hey, we're all out of original ideas here!), turned down offers to reprise their roles for the U.S. version, they triggered a domino effect that led to a complete series rebuilding. For viewers, this is a good thing.
The producers have elected wisely to surround O'Mara (a relative unknown although he has been seen prominently in episodes of Grey's Anatomy and Men in Trees) with a supporting cast that is nothing short of phenomenal. Harvey Keitel, in his first television series ever, leads the pack as Lt. Gene Hunt, an old-school, head-busting cop in a role that feels like Keitel wrote it for himself. Michael Imperioli, fresh off The Sopranos and Law and Order, agreed to play Tyler's partner, Det. Ray Carling. Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page) and Jonathan Murphy (ABC Family's Wildfire) round out the squad.
It's the casting that could save this show. Think about it for a minute: If you had your druthers, would you want to go back to 1973? The premise is fun for a while, watching Tyler try to order Diet Coke in a bar before it was invented or yearning for his cell phone, but clearly the novelty will wear thin quickly. And O'Mara, for all his rugged good looks, is something of a mannequin with a mouth. What may keep viewers tuning in for a while is Keitel, chewing scenery with the creepy menace he brings to all his roles, as the ultimate bad cop, and Imperioli in his flowing '70s hairstyle and Bill Buckner 'stache playing a part 180 degrees from Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos.
The question you may want to ask, especially if you've seen and enjoyed the British version of the series on BBC America, is, "Why didn't they just air the original series on ABC?" That's an excellent suggestion, and one that defies explanation. We've been stealing programming ideas from the Brits for decades, and in some instances (All in the Family, Sanford and Son) they transfer brilliantly. But there seems to be a mind-set in network boardrooms that we in Middle America are too unsophisticated and dimwitted to appreciate a show starring forrinners, so every series is Americanized for our tastes. Ironically, that Americanization usually means the show has to be set in New York or Los Angeles.
It's not that Life on Mars is a bad show, not in the least. It's just that, like Eleventh Hour and Worst Week on CBS, two other new shows that were shamelessly adapted from Brit TV, the original is undeniably better. So maybe the moral of this story is: If you want to know what's going to be hot on U.S. television next year, watch BBC America now. Or ABC should thank its lucky stars that Harvey Keitel had an opening in his schedule.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org