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Life on Mars panel: A new mythology ... and many more choices - TCA Report

by Joel Keller, posted Jul 17th 2008 3:03AM
Life on Mars panel
For some reason, reporters were kicked out of the ballroom so ABC could set up for this press conference. But all I saw when I walked in an hour later was palm trees and 1973-era ABC signs (like in the picture above). Wonder why I had to abandon my laptop for that?

Anyway, because many of the critics were fans of the BBC original, the gathered throng of testy TV watchers were eager to question the panel for ABC's version of Life on Mars. It was a relatively small panel, with executive producers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, and stars Jason O'Mara and Michael Imperioli. You have to realize that having no pilot to base questions on makes us critics a cranky bunch, and the fact that the show is undergoing a show-runner change (from David E. Kelley to the Applebaum and Nemec), a massive recasting (all of the original pilot's cast, except for O'Mara, is being recast as we speak) and location change (LA to New York) only fuels more questions.

All things considered, the critics took it relatively easy on the panel.

They did, however, ask a ton of questions about how the producers are going to handle taking the limited British series about a modern-day cop that gets injured, then somehow wakes up in 1973, and translating it to a seasons-long American show.

As I mentioned on our Twitter feed, Applebaum and Nemec actually went to the British producers and asked for their permission to change the mythology of the show, because that show's ultimate result (which I won't spoil) was just too limiting. Trying to figure out if Sam was in a dream or coma state or is actually traveling in time would be "unsatisfying" to them, according to Applebaum. "So with their permission, we are changing the mythology. And each week, we'll be kind of deepening that mystery as to what's going on with him. They have the three options that they sort of posed. Has he traveled through time? Has he lost his mind? Or is he in a coma? And for us, there's many, many more options to that..."

Their goal, as Applebaum and Nemec pointed out a number of times, is to not make a time-travel show. "It's not
about the butterfly effect and if I change something, yeah, I won't be born," Applebaum said. Their goal is to examine the culture of 1973 New York, what it's like to be a cop during that era, and how this modern cop deals with the differences. There may be a mental dispatch or two from 2008 to 1973, but there will be no "back and forth" between the two eas, according to Nemec.

I can imagine that Sam finding out the CSI folks can't use DNA analysis or that he can't do an Internet search will get old fast, but Applebaum and Nemec also want the show to have the feel of those old Seventies cop shows, most of which took place in New York. To that end, they'll be shooting a lot in the outer boroughs of New York, because of Manhattan's Starbuck-ification. "In terms of culturally and the storytelling that we can do there, the things that we can experience and witness. Then we found out that there's this great tax credit in New York, and it just seemed to be very serendipitous," said Nemec.

Yes, O'Mara and Imperioli did answer questions. O'Mara speculated why Colm Meaney, who was cast in the original pilot, didn't follow to this new version. "I know the Colm has homes in L.A. He spends time in Dublin, England and Spain. So that's a lot of bases to cover. I'm not sure exactly how he'd make New York work. He's got a family. I think honestly it was in the spirit of starting over, wasn't it?"

Imperioli wanted a role that was just as "juicy" as the one he played on The Sopranos. But he had the best line of the session when the panel was asked what they remember of 1973. He was the only one who wasn't either a toddler or in the womb -- or worse. "I was seven. So I remember it all," he said to laughter. "I have no idea what it was like back then. It was crazy. Sex was easy."

By the way, Applebaum and Nemec do know how the show will end. They worked on Alias, which had an idea where it was going, but as many fans might tell you, it wasn't a strong one. "We also know some of the pitfalls of telling these extended mythological stories," said Applebaum. "And so it was a thing in the writers' room when we first sat down. We're like let's just know where we want this to end and what's really going on with Sam and then, you know, be able to play with it within that context."

Finally, someone asked why the show was called Life on Mars, indicating that people may think the show is science fiction. It's an indication of how alienated Sam feels in 1973, but it's also the name of a David Bowie song from the period. If that gentleman's question is any indication, though, maybe the name is going to be a problem with most of the country. I certainly hope it isn't.

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It's a shame Colm Meaney didn't stay with the series. He was perfect for the role of Gene Hunt. I have to agree with some of the sentiments I'm hearning: this version of Life on Mars sounds like it's doomed to fail before it even starts. Still, I'll at least check it out.

July 17 2008 at 1:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Having seen the original, LA-based pilot, I applaud any attempt to "fix" the US version of LoM. What a mess! Colm Meaney's Gene Hunt was a disaster -- a pale shadow of Glenister's work. Rachelle Lefevre's take on Annie Cartwright was off, too -- her performance was adequate, but she didn't ring true as a product of the seventies. And guys, if you're going to copy-and-paste huge chunks of the UK LoM script into yours, think about regionalizing the character names; Colin Raimes and his mom Beryl will thank you for it.

Moving the show to New York is a good start. Detroit, Chicago or Philly may have been closer to Manchester in spirit, but more of the audience knows what NYC looks like now, so perhaps viewers will understand the time travel aspect sooner.

O'Mara is no John Simm. If you don't believe me, watch the US and UK episodes back-to-back and focus on the respective lead actors' eyes. Simm is stoic, but there's a lot going on beneath the surface. O'Mara is... well, kind of dead by comparison.

Casting a strong Gene Hunt, though, is absolutely essential. Tom Wilson (Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future movies), with the right haircut, could nail this, as could any number of other "beefy" actors. And if the producers want to emphasize the difference in values between the eras while giving the US version of LoM its own unique style, why not cast an African-American Annie?

Finally, while I think the original Life on Mars was a damn near flawless piece of TV, I don't think the showrunners are wrong to deviate from that plot. Slavish adherence to the original concept results in a copy -- unnecessary and generally inferior. Networks cancel (or don't even commission) inferior copies by the dozen every October. It's far better to start with a strong concept and innovate. It could still happen.

July 17 2008 at 11:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's stupid to set the show in NYC, but it was also stupid to set it in LA. The UK version wasn't set in London, it was set in Manchester. It would make more sense for the US version to be set, say, in Buffalo.

And Imperioli just seems way too young to pay the Gene Hunt character (even though I know he's only 3 years younger than Philip Glenister).

The show was called "Life on Mars" because Sam Tyler feels so out of his element. But it's also the name of the song Sam hears coming from his car radio when he first wakes up in 1973. It's a shame that no one is in the cast who will bring people in regardless of the title. I watched the first episode of the UK version, not knowing what it was about, just because of John Simm.

I don't know. The whole thing just seems destined to

July 17 2008 at 8:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh, the more I hear about the US version of Life on Mars, the more disappointed I get.

What are they going to include in the mythology of the show? Aliens? Talking Logs? The Smoking Man?

It's another example of taking a perfectly good program that began and ended in two seasons and transforming it into trash.

Final Rant. In 1973 everyone smoked. In the orginal series, just about everyone smoked. There was one episode that had a pregnant mother smoking to calm her nerves. Networks can't show smoking in any light. The new Life on Mars will show a shiny version of 1973 New York, instead of the gritty dirty 1973 New York.

July 17 2008 at 8:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm glad that they moved the show out of LA, but I wish they had set it in someplace other than NYC. Like Chicago, Detroit or Cleveland.

July 17 2008 at 8:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was wondering about the title too.

July 17 2008 at 8:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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