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TV Review: Life On Mars Series Premiere

Life On Mars - Pilot

Starring: Jason O’Mara, Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Murphy, Lisa Bonet

Created By: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec (executive producers)

Premieres: Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 10:00 PM ET on ABC

Warning: While I went out of my way not to post any major spoilers in this review, it would be impossible to review it without mentioning some details about the premise and the characters. So if you don’t want to know any specifics about this new series, read no further.

When I first heard of the premise of Life on Mars, I was intrigued. A detective suddenly finds himself stuck in the early 70’s and has to go about his professional life without thirty-something years of improved technology and forensic science to aid him in his work. I’m not a cop and I’ll admit that most of my knowledge of the profession is based on what I’ve learned from books, movies and TV but I’m willing to bet it would be somewhat of a challenge for a police detective to go back to relying on more basic investigatory techniques to solve crimes if one were used to relying on forensic labs and other high-tech equipment to aid in the search for the bad-guy. That said, I’m sure if they were good at what they do and had the sharp intuition that’s required of any good detective, they’d get around the lack of technological and forensic advancements. Such is the case for Life on Mars’ Sam Tyler.

In the series opener, NYPD Detective Sam Tyler is working alongside his secret girlfriend Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet, who from what I can tell, hasn’t aged since A Different World) to track down a murderer. When the murderer kidnaps Maya, Sam sets off to find him only to get hit by a car. When he comes to, he finds himself in the 1973 version of NYC. Is he in a coma? Is it all a dream? Did he get sucked into a time warp? Sam doesn’t know the answers to these questions any more than we do. What we do know is that in this reality, Sam’s presence isn’t unexpected on some level. He’s recognized by the police as a transfer to the unit, which makes his professional transition into the police department somewhat easier than it would be if he had just dropped out of the sky, naked and confused (which can happen sometimes in time-traveling stories). He’s got a car with his name on the deed, and a badge that tells him where he works.

Times were different in 1973. Not that I would know as I wasn’t there at the time but history does tell of an age when the Vietnam War was winding down, the feminist and civil rights movements were in full swing and getting minorities and women into higher professional positions. At the same time, despite the social advancements, not everyone was so open to it. A prime example of this in Life on Mars is Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol). In the reality Sam finds himself, Annie is a member of the Police Women’s Bureau. She works at the department but is rarely given a voice or any real police work to perform. She aspires to become a full-fledged cop but given the way things are, doesn’t consider it much more than a distant dream. In the meantime, between fetching coffee and being undermined, she has to put up with rude comments and what we would easily define as sexual harassment in this day and age.

Harvey Keitel plays Lieutenant Gene Hunt, the head of the 125th precinct where Sam is now working. He’s the kind of guy who prefers to punch potential criminals first and ask questions later. Also in the precinct is Detective Ray Carling, another rough-around-the-edges cop who makes crude comments and likes to hit things. You’ll recognize Michael Imperioli’s mug lurking behind the ridiculous mustache and wig-like hair.

Sam’s adjustment to life in New York in the 70’s is obviously going to be part of what keeps this series moving, at least in the first season. This is one of the most fun aspects of the series. Not only are we presented with a 70’s version of New York City, but the pilot also includes some classic tunes, vintage cars, people sporting 70’s attire and of course, things like 8-track tapes to remind us of when Sam is.

The other major plot in the series is the question of how Sam is where/when he is. He has no idea how he got there, whether or not he’s really there and how he can get back to 2008. It is the second part that concerns me. I love the whole idea of a modern-day detective learning to adjust to life and work in an timeframe set decades before his day. It has that whole Journeyman feel to it that I think could make for a great story. I just have to wonder how long Sam (and the viewers) are going to have to wait to find out how he got there. There’s a part of me that would like to see this plot at least partially resolved somewhat early on so that we can get on to enjoying the fish-out-of-water aspect of the story without constantly feeling frustrated because we don’t understand how the fish got out of the water in the first place. Then again, if the writers can incorporate the mystery into each episode without leaving us feeling strangely unsatisfied by the lack of answers, (see: Lost season 2 for an example of that) this could turn out to be a really great series.

My final concern is that right now the series is set to air on Thursday nights at 10, which to me is an odd timeslot considering Grey’s Anatomy airs right before it and I’m not sure how well the series will be received by hardcore Grey’s fans. Plus there are plenty of non-Grey's fans out there that will surely enjoy Life on Mars. Then again, I can't think of any other super-successful ABC series on the air right now that would be a better lead-in for this new show. The other timeslot concern I have is that it's up against NBC’s ER. I have to wonder how it will do against NBC’s long-running medical drama. Regardless, if you think Life on Mars sounds interesting, you’ll probably enjoy the pilot. The cast is great and the story is just as intriguing on screen as it sounds on paper. At its core, Life on Mars is a cop drama but due to the 70’s twist, it doesn’t have the same procedural feel as many other detective series out there.

Kelly West
Kelly West

Kelly joined CinemaBlend as a freelance TV news writer in 2006 and went on to serve as the site’s TV Editor before moving over to other roles on the site. At present, she’s an Assistant Managing Editor who spends much of her time brainstorming and editing feature content on the site.