Life on Mars is an Americanization of a two-season British series which I’ve not seen, so I’m not judging it relative to that series or on the basis of how effectively it adapts that series. The basics are that a 21st century New York police detective gets mysteriously transported back to 1973, and is still a police detective in that era. This means that the show is simultaneously trying to be three different things:
- A crime show: catch the killer or other bad guy of the moment
- An exploration of contrast: How are the 1970s different from modern day?
- A mythology show: How did he travel back in time, what’s really going on, and what are the forces behind it?
It’s common for a show to be two things at once, but three becomes a juggling act. Number 1 is the most generic part of the show, and whether it’s well done or not could vary from episode to episode. Number 2 is the most interesting, and in the first episode they do it well, painting it as a cop from a big CSI-like crime lab era finding himself dealing with a world where getting the answer is all asking the right question and punching the right person, and if there’s a few wrong ones along the way, such is life.
It’s number 3 that is the most problematic in this case. If the time travel is just an hallucination, then the contrast in attitudes (which is the tougher sell portion of the contrasts; we know they didn’t have the tech, but did cops generally have that violate-everyone’s-rights-to-get-answers attitude, and if they did were they actually worried about getting the right answers?) becomes meaningless, just a contrast against the assumptions of someone who wasn’t there. And if he did travel back in time, then the reality of the worlds he’s comparing become meaningless in a different way, as they are caught up in some Bigger Than It All situation. The regular invocation of that big picture makes it hard to settle into story of the moment. But, of course, all I’ve seen is the pilot, which inherently has to get that Big Picture rolling; it will remain for later episodes to show us whether that big picture intrudes to the same degree in each episode.
(Plus, of course, there’s the problem of any new big mythology show, that it’s unlikely to run long enough to show us the big picture. We’ve been promised that the big picture is different than it was in the English original, but I’ve seen no effective promise that all will be revealed and your viewership will be rewarded even if others chose not to view it.)
Texturewise, the 1970s are dark and grimy (we did have lights in the 1970s, guys!) Every scene makes an extra effort to dance you past something that shows the world as Very 1970s, in the way that shows that were actually made in that era never do. Harvey Keitel is a good choice for the top-dog-by-force cop, because, well, if you said “Harvey Keitel is playing this part”, then this character is basically what you’d expect to see. So he telegraphs the character, although I’m less comfortable that the character is really the right one to have. Michael Imperioli, in contrast, is having trouble convincingly inhabiting the handlebar moustache they’ve given him as a member of the squad. The lead, Jason O’Mara, is given the thankless task of being uncertain of the reality of what he’s dealing with, and yet having to treat this presumed-hallucinations as though they were real people, to whom he occasionally tries to explain the future (mostly to Gretchen Mol, who seems washed out and bland, and I’m uncertain if it’s because she’s trying to not rock the boat in the man’s world of 1970s policing, or if she’s just bland). He doesn’t triumph over that in any impressive way, and seems more reacting to the script situation of the moment (“now I’m in the heat of the crime battle and believe it all”/”now I’m sure it’s all a dream, as I lay in the hospital somewhere”) than having integrated that viewpoint.
Hmmmm… the more I think about it, the more I realize that there’s a problem between point 1 and point 2 above. There was a study done a couple decades back (and probably quoted to often since) that showed that the cop show that was the most realistic in the estimation of cops themselves was Barney Miller. Those detectives spent their time filling out forms and dealing with minor hassles. If this is going to be a crime-of-the-week show, then what are we contrasting? We’re not contrasting with cop life in the 1970s. Are we contrasting it with cop shows of the 1970s? That’s the source for a comedy, not a drama.
All in all, there’s the base for some interesting stuff here, but the pilot left me unconvinced that they’ll manage to slalom through all the dangers and make it work. I’ll be giving it another episode to convince me.