[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]
The last year or so has represented a virtual gilded age for period television programs. First "Mad Men," then "Swingtown," immersed themselves in what can only be described as era fetishism. The sumptuous and fanatically period-accurate sets and wardrobes on both shows, and their obsession with period anachronisms, threatened to overshadow what were both exceptionally well-written and well-acted dramas. And now, ABC has jumped into the period-piece sweepstakes with an American adaptation of the British show "Life on Mars" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern).
In my article on the five new shows I was most looking forward to seeing, I described "Life on Mars" as a combination of "Swingtown" and "Law and Order." Having now seen the debut episode, I don't think I was far off, except that as a cop show, "Life on Mars" is more "Law" than "Order." And given how good both "Swingtown" and "Law and Order" are at what they do, the comparison is meant as praise.
In the series debut, detective Sam (Irish actor Jason O'Mara, whose strong performance is only sullied by his fleeting connection with a plausible American accent, and his inability to even approximate a New York one), shortly after having a commitment-phobic moment with his girlfriend Maya (welcome back, Lisa Bonet), a fellow detective, finds that a serial killer who they've captured has tricked his way out of custody and seemingly abducted Maya. Sam, in pursuit, is struck by a car, and when he comes to, it's 1973.
Bewildered by the strange world, he finds he is the new guy at his precinct, working with a bitter detective who wanted his job (Ray, played by Michael Imperioli) and under a lieutenant, Gene (Harvey Keitel), who is so old school, he would probably wonder what all the fuss was about with the Rodney King beating. In fact, Gene greets Sam, who he perceives as asserting unearned authority, by punching him in the gut. Out of sorts, the guys send Sam to see Annie (Gretchen Mol), or as her colleagues refer to her, "No Nuts," a before-her-time Bureau of Police Women member (where she handles "lost kitties" and "hysterical girlfriends"), who has aspirations to become a police officer and has a psychology degree to back it up. Young detective Chris (Jonathan Murphy, the younger brother in "October Road," the show from which the "Life on Mars" production team comes) doesn't know what to make of Sam, either, but he seems the least angry about it.
Once Sam starts to settle in 1973, he discovers that a serial killer is using the same patterns as the 2008 murderer that may have captured Maya. Only the 2008 villain would be a kid in 1973, so there has to be more going on. Sam gets flashes from the future, hearing the voice of doctors and colleagues, sometimes through electronics, and we glean that in 2008, Sam is fading in and out of a vegetative state. Just when Sam thinks he knows what his 1973 job is, to stop the killer in that time from growing up to hurt Maya, in the final scene, Maya's voice through his car radio tells him she's fine. So Sam's purpose and mission in 1973 is a mystery left to play out in future episodes.
"Life on Mars" has a lot in common with "Mad Men" and "Swingtown." It's debut episode is an orgy of look-how-different-things-were-then moments. Upon landing in 1973, Sam, still dazed, tells a cop he needs his cell, to which the officer replies, "what do you need to sell?" When Sam says he was driving his Jeep, the cop asks him, "You were driving a military vehicle?" At the precinct, when Sam asks where his computer is, his colleagues make fun of him, saying he thinks he's in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Ray remarks that it will take a couple of weeks to get fingerprint results back from the lab, and when Sam is shocked, Chris says he knows that it's amazing they can get the results so quickly now. Men talk crassly to women in an un-P.C. manner that seems unimaginable to 2008 ears. Ray smokes in the morgue while they inspect the body of a victim. Gene routinely beats suspects in a way that makes you understand why federal civil rights laws were needed. The streets are filled with hippies, flower children and guys with afros, and the men all sport groovy mod clothes and cool sideburns (and some guys have mustaches), explaining what we now mean when we say someone looks like a 1970s porn star. There is the famous "plop plop, fizz, fizz" Alka-Seltzer commercial, and the soundtrack is packed with music from the era, from well-known standards like The Who's "Baba O'Riley" to curiosities like "Little Willie" by Sweet and David Bowie's song that gives the show its title.
Like "Mad Men" and "Swingtown," "Life on Mars" has more to it than just the shock value of comparing eras. But rather than dig into the hypocrisies of staid suburban life, the show is a first-rate police procedural with the sci-fi element of time travel. Sam's central problem -- Why is he in 1973 and how can can he get back home? -- is compelling. We've all felt like fish out of water at times. And the poignancy of Sam experiencing this displacement as his girlfriend may be in mortal danger, and after he didn't step up to the plate like he should have for her in their relationship, is strong.
Sam's 1973 world also offers potentially interesting stories and problems. Sam and Annie have clear chemistry, more, it would seem, than he even has with Maya. But the timing, literally, is not very good for them. Sam's efforts to help Annie backfire, as his 2008 sensibilities are all wrong for a 1973 world.
But Sam's 2008 police techniques do give some inside help to his fellow detectives, something that is central to his relationship with Gene. Sam is disgusted by Gene's baseness, and Gene doesn't understand -- or want to understand -- Sam's sensitive side. But Gene sees that Sam's ability to break cases can help him get bad guys, and Sam knows he has to co-exist with Gene, so the two seem to come to an uneasy -- real uneasy -- detente. Their relationship is far more interesting than you'll find in the average cop show.
Since the team from "October Road" is in charge of "Life on Mars," it is not surprising that the program goes deeper into the relationships of its characters than most modern police procedurals tend to do. The writing and performances are top-notch, more what you would expect to see in an HBO drama than in a network cop show.
The strength of "Life on Mars" is visible in the climactic scene of the debut, in which Sam talks to an eight-year-old that he knows grows up to be a serial killer that may have harmed his girlfriend. The situation is rich and complicated. On the one hand, cradling a gun in his hand, he knows he can end the time line with one shot. But at the same time, he also learns exactly how and why the guy became the monster he turned out to be, and how the kid, at this point, is far more scared and hurt than evil. The real conflict Sam is experiencing is apparent. It's the kind of scene you would see in a quality feature film: tense, heartfelt and smart, all at once.
Forget how "Life on Mars" ranks among new shows; it is quite simply one of the best programs on television today. It features the intrigue of a cop show, the character arcs of a drama, and flashes of cutting humor, all with the attention to detail of the best period pieces, top-notch acting and smart, inventive writing.
While "Mad Men" and "Swingtown" garnered critical acclaim, they also failed to attract large audiences. At least in this one way, I hope that "Life on Mars" doesn't follow in their footsteps.