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Lost in translation

The American version of Life on Mars is mostly lifeless

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British TV series tend to have short, finite life spans, finishing up in only a few short seasons. Life on Mars, for example, whose American remake (ABC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.) premieres this week, ran for only two seasons and 16 episodes in the U.K.—fewer than the American version will run if it makes it only one full season. The result is that stories that have clear-cut beginnings, middles and ends in their original form have to be stretched to an indefinite length for the demands of American series television. Sometimes this can produce positive results—the U.S. version of The Office has distanced itself from its British counterpart by expanding its palette of characters and going further in-depth on long-term storylines—but for something like Life on Mars, it seems like a recipe for disaster.

Also boding ill for the American Mars is the fact that its original pilot and executive producer and several of its original cast members were scrapped; that kind of creative retooling is generally a bad sign, although what airs this week is less a train wreck than a mediocrity. The premise remains the same as that of the British series: A detective from the present day gets hit by a car and wakes up to find himself in 1973, where everyone believes he’s always been. He’s a cop there, too, subject to all of the backward technology and retrograde social attitudes that come with the period. Irish actor Jason O’Mara, doing an American accent, plays NYPD Detective Sam Tyler, whose accident occurs just as he is trailing the kidnapper of his fellow-cop girlfriend (Lisa Bonet).

Shifted back in time somehow, Sam contends with boorish new co-workers and a crude boss (Harvey Keitel) who has no qualms about employing a little police brutality or forgoing things like search warrants in the name of catching criminals. Sam’s only ally seems to be Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol), a female officer kept down by the department’s institutional sexism, who doesn’t know quite what to make of Sam’s story of being from the future.

The show is an awkward mix of police procedural and sci-fi mystery, with plenty of winking jokes about things that didn’t exist yet in 1973 (“Diet Coke? Wouldn’t that be something”). Sam speculates about what happened to him, whether he really traveled in time or is in fact hallucinating the whole thing as he lies in a hospital in 2008; various cues in the first episode suggest either explanation. The shift in producers came with word that there would be greater emphasis on developing the show’s mythology, but there’s only so long that they can drag out the question of what really happened to Sam before viewers get impatient.

By the end of the original’s 16-episode run, there was a clear answer, but with that answer not likely to come for a long time in the new version, it seems futile to place so much emphasis on the search for it. In the meantime, the crime-solving is ho-hum, and O’Mara lacks charisma, although the salty supporting characters may turn out to be intriguing if they develop beyond caricatures. There will be plenty of time for that, at least, but the plot’s likely to run out of steam long beforehand.

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