The right onscreen music can make or break any scene. Seldom, however, does the very existence of a TV series depend on one song, as with ABC’s new time-traveling detective drama “Life on Mars,” which gets its name from a David Bowie tune.
The show is a remake of a BBC hit that prominently featured the track, but executive producer Scott Rosenberg admits he still had a brief moment of panic, wondering, “What if we can’t get permission from David Bowie? … You really can’t do the show ‘Life on Mars’ without the song ‘Life on Mars.’ ”
The sweeping orchestral ballad is heard in episode one at the critical moment when Detective Sam Tyler (Irish actor Jason O’Mara) is struck by a car and hurled back to 1973. We see the familiar thumbnail of Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” album cover on Sam’s iPod, and then — wham! — next thing you know it’s an 8-track cassette and his collar is twice as wide.
Rosenberg, who also created ABC’s short-lived “October Road,” recalls asking the show’s BBC creator, Ashley Pharoah, how he’d landed upon 1973. “I really thought he was going to give me this incredibly hyper-intellectual answer about how 1973 was the moment when the ’60s died and the ’70s began, with Watergate and Vietnam … and he said, ‘Honestly, because that’s when the David Bowie song came out.'”
The era represents rich territory for the dramas of a New York City police precinct whose head honchos (played by Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli) are reluctant to change with the times, much less take guff from a 21st-century man, but it’s not one that’s easy to re-create when you’re shooting on location and there’s a Starbucks on every corner. Rosenberg’s aim is to use music “the same way we use wardrobe, props, film stock and production design. … Paisley ties will only get you so far.”
To that end, every “needle drop” is built into the script, which is then handed over to the show’s savvy music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas, whose other credits include “The OC” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“By and large she’s been very successful at getting us everything we’ve wanted,” Rosenberg says, “and it’s not as crazy exorbitant as people might think.”
It helps that Rosenberg is a bit of a music snob who’d rather turn viewers on to a slightly obscure track than fall back on a classic rock hit.
“You know it, but you won’t walk into the bar at happy hour on Friday night and hear it playing on the jukebox,” he says. “It’s not ‘Jumping Jack Flash.'” It is, however, the Rolling Stones ditty “Out of Time,” the Velvet Underground’s irresistibly hooky “Rock and Roll” or Bowie’s glam contemporaries like Mott the Hoople and the Sweet. The Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel also chime in; Dusty Springfield croons, fittingly, in a gay bar.
Visitors to ABC.com can listen to “Life on Mars Radio,” but Rosenberg believes TV itself is the new radio; it’s where new bands break, and where older artists get rediscovered. “Nothing makes me happier,” he says, “than when you read on the message boards, ‘What was that song? I gotta download that!'”