Will Life on Mars Arrest American Audiences?
In Life on Mars (Thursday, Oct. 9 at 10 pm/ET), ABC's remake of a BBC series, present-day NYPD officer Sam Tyler (Irish actor Jason O'Mara) gets hit by a car during a particular high-stakes case and wakes up in 1973. Just like that. His journey back to 2008 is hampered by a precinct full of rogue cops, including Harvey Keitel and The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli, and a capable though before-her-time policewoman, Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol), who becomes Sam's closest ally. Plus, there's the tricky fact that nobody quite believes him. It's a nutty premise, but Hollywood has shown us that 1970s New York cop stories are rich with dramatic possibility. We talked to O'Mara and executive producer Josh Appelbaum about relocating the show from Manchester, England, how O'Mara mastered the local accent, and, well, what the heck this show is really about.
TVGuide.com: How did you deal with the challenge of adapting this incredibly popular BBC series? Did you feel a responsibility to honor it in any way? Or change it?
Josh Appelbaum: We were all huge fans of the BBC show. And, you know, it being a cop show set in 1973 gave us the opportunity to move the show to New York. But then we were like, what speaks to that time? If we can get, you know, a Harvey Keitel-type, that would be fantastic — and we got Harvey himself, and if we could get a Michael Imperioli-type, that would be a dream, and we got Michael. The best thing about bringing it to the States is being able to put these quintessential New York actors in that world.
Jason O'Mara: We're still trying to present it in the spirit and tone of how it was on the BBC but, you know, there are very specific differences. Some of the stories are similar, but once you see Episode 2, you'll realize that we're taking it in a slightly different direction.
TVGuide.com: Why? What happens in Episode 2?
Appelbaum: Literally the first scene of Episode 2 is Sam in the squad room late at night standing by a blackboard. Annie comes in and finds him and he's written down these 13 things on the board and 12 of them are different [explanations of Sam's dilemma]. Sam's doing what the audience will do, which is to say, what the hell is going on here? Is he in a coma? Has he traveled through time? Is he dead and in purgatory, heaven or hell? Is there some interdimensional ripple here? He goes through the entire list, and each one of the options will be explored in the first 13 episodes. There was a certainty in the British version that Sam was in a coma; that certainty does not exist in our incarnation.
TVGuide.com: In the pilot, though, Sam seems to be communicating with 2008 using different forms of technology -- the doctor's on the TV, Maya is on the car radio -- and they seem to indicate that Sam is in a hospital in a coma.
O'Mara: To clarify, 2008 communicates with Sam; he doesn't communicate with 2008.
Appelbaum: That is a big part of the rules of the show. One of his frustrations, his goals, is to actually get a "two-way line" somewhere.
TVGuide.com: Have you guys paid attention to other period shows, say, Mad Men or Swingtown, for ideas on how to be period-correct?
Appelbaum: Yeah, I'm a huge fan of Mad Men. It was really important to us that we not do a send-up of the '70s, but something that felt like it lived organically in the time. It's not all about lava lamps and bellbottoms and that kind of stuff.
O'Mara: Also, it's not just how 1973 actually was back then, but how 1973 was portrayed in movies of the time, you know, Serpico or The French Connection. It evokes something nostalgic and romantic, while also being sort of gritty and dangerous.
TVGuide.com: How large a role will Lisa Bonet have in the series? [Bonet plays O'Mara's 2008 girlfriend.]
Appelbaum: In the second episode, there will be a visitor that will come into Sam's life that will open up that mystery. One of Sam's goals is to return to his love separated through time, Maya. I'll just say that Lisa is going to appear in several episodes in the beginning.
TVGuide.com: Jason, did the New York cop accent give you any trouble?
O'Mara: I talked to a couple of dialect coaches, one of whom I work with on set every day. We didn't want to do a stereotypical New York accent, where everybody's talking all gangster-y or too cop-like, you know? We wanted to give it a subtle flavor. It's harder to do a subtle accent of any region than it is to do an immediately recognizable, you know, Italian New York accent or a Jewish New York accent or an Irish New York accent. I've tried to blend a few things together.
TVGuide.com: The music choices are pretty fun. Are you simply trying to create a '70s vibe or are you trying to add additional commentary through the songs?
Appelbaum: We're definitely not playing any songs that weren't recorded between 1970 and 1973. But we didn't want to make it a juke box, you know, a "greatest hits" show. We were really looking to find more obscure songs from the era, but by familiar artists. We tried to find deeper cuts on their albums, in the whole spirit of the show, which is just a little off.
O'Mara: There's definitely commentary in every song choice. I'm totally stunned every time I pick up a script and see what music we're using. I download it and put it on my iPod and I listen to it going to work. If there ever was a TV show that needed a soundtrack album, it would be this one.
Watch clips of Life on Mars in our Online Video Guide