Every year ABC rolls the dice on one truly first-rate pilot that breaks (or at least bends) the usual mold. “Life on Mars” is the latest gamble — albeit one predicated on an existing template, that being a BBC drama. Splendidly cast, handsomely produced and conceptually intriguing, the network’s bid to create a procedural with a twist also faces a high hurdle — call it the “Lost” conundrum, where viewers might grow impatient for some indication as to what’s really going on. So while “Mars” launches just fine, the trick will be maintaining its orbit.
The pilot hews closely to the British series, which is both good and bad news, inasmuch as that program wrapped up its storyline after two eight-episode seasons — and even at that felt as if it was straining to reach the finish line.
Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) is after a sadistic killer, who, in the fast-paced opening sequence, might have abducted his girlfriend (“The Cosby Show’s” Lisa Bonet). In pursuit, Sam is struck by a car — and wakes up in 1973, where nobody has heard of cell phones, his iPod has been replaced by an eight-track, and the soundtrack shifts to songs from the Who and the Rolling Stones’ especially apt “Out of Time.” (The title is derived from a David Bowie tune.)
Disoriented at first, Sam realizes his situation boils down to two options: He has either traveled back in time, or he’s in a coma in the 21st century, “and none of this is real.” Either way, he figures the journey back requires solving cases at the 1970s version of his precinct, presided over by a bad lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) who thinks search warrants are for wimps. Fingerprints? They should be back in a few weeks. Forensics? Why bother when it’s so much easier just to beat the suspect until he confesses?
Sam’s new mates include a surly New York cop (Michael Imperioli under a Mark Twain moustache) and policewoman (Gretchen Mol) whom the guys openly harass, nicknaming her “No-nuts Norris.” It’s like filtering an episode of “The Mod Squad” through a jaded way-back machine, seeing past imperfections in the same way “Mad Men” highlights what wasn’t always so swell about the swinging ’60s.
It is, in short, a great idea — but one that potentially suffers from a limited shelf life. Yes, Sam’s modern techniques are going to clash with his Neanderthal boss and skeptical colleagues, but in the British show, anyway, that quickly grew repetitive as viewers waited for any bread crumbs suggesting how or what teleported Sam back.
In a best-case scenario, that would approximate the mystery of “Lost,” but this is a considerably narrower concept, better suited to the U.K.’s self-contained shorter (as opposed to open-ended) series runs. As such, over time the series could easily slide toward “Daybreak,” the last short-lived ABC drama built around a time-bending enigma. To its credit, “Life on Mars” offers fine performers, some arresting images, sly satire and a terrific song score. What it doesn’t offer — indeed, can’t — is answers.