Jason O'Mara, Life on Mars
TV Guide's Senior Critic Matt Roush takes your TV questions. Have a rant, rave or burning question about your favorite show you'd like addressed? E-mail him here!
Question: I wanted to write about how much I am enjoying Life on Mars. The cast is excellent, and the soundtrack perfectly complements the action and the era. And to think I almost didn't give this show a chance. Why? Because deep down, it's a show about cops, and I have had to put up with so many procedurals for so long that I've had my fill. The only reason I watched it was because it was not on CBS, home to too many unsatisfying police and/or lawyer dramas, but on ABC. I've been very happy over the years with the new shows ABC has to offer, such as Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, Pushing Daisies and many others, so I decided give it a shot. I was not disappointed. Is it at all accurate to say that, in the past few years, ABC seems to have had better new shows to offer compared to what's on the other networks? And if so, why? But to return to Life on Mars, I'd like to know what you thought of it. How have the ratings been? I have not seen the original British series, so I can't compare it to the American. As much as I have enjoyed it, I am not sure I know where the show is headed. In the first two episodes, there was a lot of reference to Sam's life in 2008, along with a few surreal elements that reminded the audience that Sam does not belong in 1973. The third episode seemed to put all of that on the back burner until the very end and concentrated mainly on the murder that the detectives had to solve. I hope that is not a sign of what we'll see in future episodes, because then we'll just have another police procedural on our hands. Your thoughts? — Kristin A.
Matt Roush: I feel your pain about the crime-show glut — although to be fair, not all procedurals are created equal, and while CBS has too many, some of them are terrific. But your point about ABC in general is a good one. Of all the broadcast networks, it's taking the greatest risks with the greatest variety of imaginative, offbeat concepts, of which Life on Mars is a terrific example (Betty, Daisies and Eli Stone also qualify). This stems from the breakout success five seasons ago of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, which spurred ABC to continue developing in this vein. Unfortunately, this season, with so many of its shows struggling (excepting Housewives and Grey's), it's as if ABC is being punished for its flair and originality, while audiences flock to the tried and true. As for Mars, which I was an early fan of (both the British and U.S. versions): I'd cut this one some slack. It has to walk a pretty delicate line, satisfying fans of police drama — the '70s period setting helps set this one apart, even when it's on familiar ground — while also never losing sight of Sam's bizarre time-tripping disorientation. Some weeks it may emphasize the crime over the fantasy arc, but this aspect is always embedded into the way Sam approaches each case. Mars opened to good numbers, but the ratings have fallen since, making me think that the average procedural fan already has found the show too weird for their tastes. If it gets even more out-there, it will probably have to settle for cult status at best.
Question: Now that the U.S. version of Life on Mars has successfully debuted on ABC, is there any word on when or if Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to the British original, might air on BBC America? — Neal A.
Matt Roush: The answer to "if" is: very probable. I know the show is on the network's radar. The "when" is iffier, because as of this writing, they haven't completed the deal yet. Once they do, we (and BBC America) will let everyone know when to expect the series. I'm looking forward to this one myself.
Question: What a topsy-turvy TV season this has been for me. Shows I used to love have become yawn-inducing, and shows I had written off as dead have come charging back to life. This phenomenon is best illustrated by my current reactions to Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives. I've been a huge Betty fan since the beginning, and while the second season didn't quite capture the charm of the first, it was still appointment TV for me. But this season? I can barely bring myself to watch, at least not without liberal use of the fast-forward function on my DVR. I'm so over the whole "who will be the editor-in-chief" storyline. There have been so many twists and turns in the plot that I honestly find myself having trouble remembering who is editor-in-chief from week to week, what role Daniel has at the magazine and which Meade family member is currently in jail for what crime. I get that the show is based on a telenovela and that unexpected and over-the-top plot twists are a major part of that genre, but this is overkill. I hope they find a way to bring back the charm and wit that made me love this show in the first place. (Hint: More Marc and Amanda would help). As for Desperate Housewives, what a resurgence! I was quite skeptical about the 5-year jump, thinking it a cheap device of desperation that would only drag the show farther down. But instead, it has truly reinvigorated the storytelling and acting. Last Sunday's episode ("Mirror, Mirror") is hands down the best episode of the show since the first season: tightly written, cleverly constructed and beautifully acted. And Neal McDonough is the show's best "villain" yet. So what are your thoughts? And have any other shows surprised you (for better or worse) this season? — Rhonda
Matt Roush: These are excellent examples, and I would add My Name Is Earl as a show that is back on course, though last year's dreadful prison/coma detours may have fatally stalled its momentum (and pairing it with the execrable Kath & Kim hasn't helped). I'm also pleasantly surprised at how well Bones has performed on Wednesdays, though (the Zack debacle aside) it wasn't in real creative trouble. I'm not as down on Betty as you and some others are, but I agree that it hasn't done much lately to capture the heart while it obsesses too heavily on the workplace scheming (some of which was a laborious effort to write Rebecca Romijn off the show). Desperate Housewives, on the other hand, is on a creative roll, and I agree that the flashback episode built around Mrs. McCluskey's ill-fated 70th birthday episode was a high point. Neil McDonough is riveting, and Housewives has become not only a highlight of Sunday night but of the entire week.
Question: This is not a question but a comment on how wonderful the season finale of Mad Men was. I can't imagine not having this show to watch on Sunday evenings until next summer. Hopefully, AMC will show reruns at some time to tide us over. As always, the acting was superb, but I must say the episode seemed to punctuate how great Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser are in their respective roles of Peggy and Pete. Their last scene together was so poignant and dramatically significant. It is hard to believe that Vincent is the same actor who portrayed Connor on Angel. He certainly has come a long way. The women on this show need to be recognized at Emmy time next year, as they all excel each week. If only some of the major networks had shows like this that are compelling, thoughtful and intelligent. I don't want to rush the year away, but next July is already in my sights for great television viewing. — JG
Matt Roush: Couldn't agree more. And I hope all Mad Men fans caught Jon Hamm (with cameos by Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery) on Saturday Night Live the night before the finale. Hamm was in great form (as was the show, mostly, for a change) — his drunken James Mason impersonation blew me away — and we're still buzzing about "Don Draper's Guide to Picking Up Women," which was brilliant. But back to Mad Men. The Peggy-Pete confession scene was devastating, and the chilly reunion of Don and Betty was haunting. Duck self-destructing as he lashed out at Don (who doesn't have a contract!) in front of the Brits at the merger meeting was almost as satisfying as last season's showdown between Pete and Don in which Bert Cooper declared, "Who cares?" It's just a brilliant show, but probably too eclectic to work on what passes for broadcast TV these days.
Question: In regard to recent comments about the fate of Pushing Daisies, I am humbly reminded of the fate of my other long-time favorite show Ed. It started in the 8 pm/ET slot on Sunday night and ended up in the Wednesday night 8 pm slot on NBC before vanishing in the 9 pm slot on Fridays. While both these shows share critical acclaim, I think the thing Pushing Daisies has going for it is an audience that ranges from Burton-esque cinephiles to younger audiences and families. Part of Ed's problem, I think, was that it was one of the first of the dramedy genre. Yet I do think networks have learned from shows like Ed and Gilmore Girls and have found more ways to fit them into the mainstream. Now when a show like Pushing Daisies comes along, which is also in between genres, its fate becomes more of a question regarding who the audience is. Should the show move to a later time slot, I think it could lose the advantage of a much younger audience, which of course is not as prized as the coveted demographics, but when you consider the nature of the show and its general lack of racier content, a 9 pm slot isn't necessary. With cast members such as Kristen Chenoweth who already have a huge theater fan base, I think it's more a matter of what night the show is on than the time. I personally would love it if ABC would switch Pushing Daisies with Extreme Makeover Home Edition as it would be a great lead-in to Desperate Housewives (which I don't watch) and Brothers & Sisters. Although I do love when it is on the same night as Lost. Your thoughts? — Maya
Matt Roush: The comparison to Ed makes some sense, but Pushing Daisies is in every way more extreme a hybrid: of comedy, drama, mystery, fantasy, romance, you name it. There's nothing quite like it, which makes it impossible to pigeonhole and possibly just as difficult to convince the skeptics to come along for the fabulous ride. Putting on the amateur programmers' cap, I like the idea of hammocking Daisies between established and compatible hits, so if ABC were to move Makeover to 7 pm/ET and put Daisies on between that and Housewives, it would at least theoretically give Daisies a better shot than it has now at launching an underperforming night. I wouldn't count on it, though, since Makeover is still a success (though less of a phenom than it used to be), and no network is going to likely to fix what isn't broke right now, even to prop up a struggling show it believes in.
Question: Do you know if Law & Order: SVU is planning on continuing, or will this be the last season? I know the ratings have slipped some, but they're still good, especially for NBC. — Camille
Matt Roush: No Law & Order show will give up without a fight, so don't count out SVU just yet. Its decline is in part a reflection of NBC's overall dismal performance and tougher time-period competition this season with a show (CBS's Without a Trace) that attracts a similar audience. I've heard nothing to indicate this show is anywhere close to packing it in. And if they can keep lining up top-flight guests like Ellen Burstyn (as Stabler's unstable mother), there's no reason to expect it to.
Question: Now that True Blood has moved past the episodes that you were able to preview, is your love for the show still as strong? I'm hearing a lot of negative feedback from viewers and critics alike, which surprises me, since I am completely fascinated, intrigued and entertained by the world this show has created. Sookie's "initiation" with Bill was one of the most original and unsettling love scenes I've seen in a long time, and I like how even the story of a comic-relief character like Jason is tinged with danger. With all the grousing going on among the TV Police, this is shaping up to be the most underrated series since HBO's Tell Me You Love Me. I realize no two shows could be more different, but I have no trouble telling True Blood that I love it. How about you? — Ryan
Matt Roush: I liked it from the start, and I'm still having a ball with it. (Evidence: I am now caught up with where the latest batch of advance screeners left off and, unless more episodes turn up soon, I'll have to watch the show live this weekend for the first time. And even with Dexter and Desperate Housewives as direct competition, I can't imagine passing on it until later.) The reaction among some critics (though I don't want to overgeneralize here) seems to be that this show is somehow not classy or self-important enough to be worthy of HBO. Which, if the alternative is something as pretentious as John from Cincinnati or as dreary as In Treatment (sorry, despite some fine acting, it put me to sleep), I'm more than willing to see HBO change it up a bit. And while no one would deny True Blood's flagrantly trashy side, I'm enjoying the gusto with which it's telling its love story as well as its parables of intolerance and addiction. (Not so sure how I feel about the exorcism subplot involving Tara and her mother, but it was certainly startling.) I'm not going to apologize for enjoying this one.
Question: I'm a big fan of the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris, but I don't have HBO so I haven't seen True Blood yet. I'm trying to keep an open mind about the show (I plan to eventually watch it on DVD). I don't expect the series to follow the books exactly, and I wouldn't want it to. What works in print does not always translate well to the screen. It sounds like most of the changes Alan Ball has made only improve the story. My one concern is with the character of Bill. I hate reading about how many people love him, because he's probably my least favorite character in the books. I think it will be hard to watch knowing what I do about him, but at the same time wondering if the fan's devotion will wind up changing everything. I guess what it comes down to is that while I don't mind the story changing, I will be disappointed if the major characters develop in such a way that they are almost unrecognizable as the characters in the books. That seems like a real possibility based on how many people want Bill and Sookie together forever. I know you think the show should chart its own path, but do you believe there are limits to how far afield TV series should go? It doesn't seem fair to the author or the fans who were readers first if the show completely changes course. (Just look at what became of Little House on the Prairie as an example!) — Jodi
Matt Roush: For True Blood to survive as a TV series, it cannot and should not be a replica of the book series, no matter how the books' fans feel about it. It's not like these books are cultural totems on the level of Harry Potter or, for that matter, the Twilight series. The books are a starting point for Alan Bell and his team, and they've already made some pretty extreme departures in this first season. I can't tell what your problem is with the character of Bill as developed in the books, but Sookie gets fed up with him as well from time to time — she's even chided in one of the books for giving up on him and running away every time she feels put out or creeped out — so I would expect the rocky road of being involved with the undead would still be an underlying premise of the series in seasons to come. Surely it can't surprise you, given the intense passion of fans for their vampire dramas (cue the Moonlight fan base), that the Sookie-Bill relationship is what's driving interest in the show. But kudos, by the way, for being the first to bring Laura Ingalls Wilder into the conversation!
Question: We seem to agree on a lot of shows, which is why I want to ask you about Friday Night Lights. Have you been keeping up with this season? I think it's great! It's a vast improvement over last year (which I don't think was terrible but I could have done without the One Tree Hill-esque murder plot and the sleeping with the help thing). Having said that, do you think a show like this is actually helped by having a truncated season of 13 episodes? I've always felt that it's really hard for shows to sustain the quality over 22 episodes. Why don't networks experiment with doing shortened seasons? I guess it will be very telling when FNL does its run on NBC in the spring, but why not have other shows try this? I've always hated Heroes (don't even get me started on the poor man's Lost), but a show so steeped in mythology would probably benefit from shorter, complete seasons. Things don't need to be dragged out. There's no need to have "filler" episodes about nothing. I say this while thinking of shows like Dexter, which has a clear beginning, middle and end to each season's storyline while still leaving you wanting more. I also think The Office could benefit from this. Not every episode is going to be funny (as evidenced by last season), especially the hour-long ones. So why not follow the lead of the British version and have fewer quality episodes? I guess that's the point I'm trying to make. Quality doesn't mean quantity. Thoughts? — Tara
Matt Roush: It should be no surprise that I'm really enjoying this season of Friday Night Lights on DirecTV so far. Far less melodrama, and (spoiler alert) so many characters to care about: Matt Saracen as always (tested by the arrival of a hot freshman QB prospect), Smash Williams (his final episodes were so uplifting), and now we're back with Jason Street, watching him try to figure out a future in tough economic times. And the Taylors, the coach and the principal, are in such fine form, always trying to do the right thing for their family and their school family (Coach with Matt, Tami with Tyra). I'll leave it there, just assuring folks that they have something special to look forward to when the episodes show up on NBC in '09. But to your bigger question: Many shows would benefit creatively from shorter seasons, no doubt, but outside of cable — with their more flexible schedules and priorities on launching just a handful of signature series per year — that's just not how the U.S. network TV business works, economically or in the logistics of scheduling and satisfying a mass market over a long period of time. Less really isn't more when you're dealing with viewers who expect their favorite network shows to be there from fall through late spring (with inevitable interruptions along the way). And given that it's hard enough for most networks to come up with a successful fall lineup, asking them to come up with several schedules throughout the year to replace shows that are taking a break is too much to ask or hope for.
Question: I know you can't do much about it, but I would like to know what you think the rationale is behind networks running shows a minute or two beyond the hour or half-hour. I think it's to p--- off us DVR owners so we can't record shows on other networks. From what I've seen, there are only commercials or network promos on those extra minutes, not parts of the show. Thanks for listening to my rant. — George B.
Matt Roush: Easily the most frequent complaint of the TV year (Close competitor: those promo "bugs" at the bottom of your screen). You're right, there's nothing we can do about this — although I advise using the manual recording option on nights where overlap is giving your DVR conniptions, trimming the last minute off one show or the first minute off the other; you usually won't miss much. The rationale has everything to do with networks trying to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to flip between channels, especially when a hit show is involved. It's simple strategy, and if it comes off as desperate, well, these are pretty desperate times for everyone, including (but hardly limited to) the networks.