Life On Mars: Retro Cops With a Dash Of Godot

Thursday night has always been my favorite night for TV.  The weekend is close … but not close enough for a night out.  I’m pretty much fried by the work week, but shifting into TGIF mode.  I’m generally up for a little entertainment … as long as I don’t have to provide it.  I want a slice, a beer and a good show … and I think I’ve found one in “Life On Mars.”

Two episodes in, number three airs tonight, the table has been set for this quirky crime drama.  Jason O’Mara stars as Sam Tyler, a New York City detective in the year 2008 … who suddenly finds himself in the Big Apple circa 1973 after being hit by a car.  No big budget special effects transport our hero to his new reality … one minute he’s here and now, the next he’s there and then.  The clothes are mod, the cars burn regular, and the soundtrack is vintage Bowie, The Who and The Rolling Stones.

Now exactly one year ago at this time, NBC was trying out its own time travel show, “Journeyman” … it flopped, and I think I know why.  “Journeyman” wanted it both ways … the main character was transported to different years, but he always wound up back in the present.  Sam has no such luck in “Life in Mars” … he’s stuck in ’73 with only faint reminders of his old life around.  He’s not going anywhere … and that’s why we pull for him.

The writing and casting of “Life on Mars” is also far superior to “Journeyman” … it’s based on a successful BBC series from 2006.  Harvey Keitel gets to chew scenery as Lieutenant Gene Hunt, the lead detective in Sam’s new cop shop home.  Michael Imperioli gets to try his luck with PG-13 dialog after f-bombing his way through “The Sopranos.”  It’s a rough bunch of guys … loud, hairy, and politically incorrect.  Sam’s been bounced from the world of “CSI: NY” and dropped into “Kojack.”  It’s fun to watch Sam, the enlightened man of the twenty first century, deal with the attitudes, bigotry, and sexism of 1973.  It’s nice to know we’ve evolved quite a bit since then.

“Life On Mars” also has its love story elements.  In 2008, Sam is trying to work out his relationship with his colleague and lover Maya.  Maya is played by Lisa Bonet in her “celebrated” return to television.  You can keep the champagne chilled though, because so far Bonet has sleepwalked her way through a linchpin role. Sam keeps tellin’ us how crazy he is about Maya, and how he’s got to get back to Maya, but so far we haven’t seen anything to justify that passion.  Sure she’s sexy … hello, it’s Lisa Bonet … but we need a little bit more there … there.

In ’73, the gal with that certain somethin’ is Annie … played by Gretchen Mol.  She’s the smart girl forced to wear the dumb uniform as she tries to make her way through the man’s world of the NYPD.  Sam confides in her about his strange time travel dilemma, and though sympathetic, Annie tries to use her Pysch degree to explain it all away.  She knows Sam is “different” … unlike the knuckle-draggers of the era, he treats her like an equal, but that’s not going to do her much good if he turns out to be nuts.  In normal circumstances these two would be pulled together in a New York minute … but Sam’s situation is far from normal.

So, with all that in mind, here’s whats really selling me on “Life On Mars” right now.  In both episodes Sam has seen images and heard voices from 2008 … he’s not completely cut off.  But what does that mean?  Is this a coma dream from his accident?  Is this purgatory?  Is this heaven?  Is this hell?  Is this Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” set in a retro cop shop?  Right now, I’d answer yes to all of those questions, and that’s what will bring me back for tonight’s episode (10:00 PM ABC, WCVB).

Network TV doesn’t often work with this kind of budget, and this kind of talent.  It’s the way I used to feel about “ER” back in the day.  Yeah, that was Thursday night too.

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