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October 16, 2008 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | October 16, 2008 |

Doc Brown warned us about this.

You can really screw things up when you travel through time, especially if you run into a past version of yourself, but the potential to change history is too great a draw not to try. It’s all fiction, of course, but it’s a fiction people love to imagine, a fish-out-of-water experience that let’s us wonder what it’d be like to step backward or forward in time, even just for a few minutes.

The latest pop culture piece to attempt to bring us this theory is ABC’s “Life on Mars,” a creative but mind-bending TV show in which a New York City detective, Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), in 2008 is hit by a car and knocked unconscious, only to wake up in 1973. That is, part of him wakes up there. Disappointingly, “Life on Mars” really isn’t about time travel because it doesn’t follow any of the fake but necessary rules to make the theory work, flying DeLorean or magic phone booth or no.

Sam in ‘08 was chasing a potential murderer who might have had as a hostage his girlfriend and fellow detective, Maya (Lisa Bonet), when he was hit by a car as he stepped out of his on a New York street. The last song playing on his in-car iPod? David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” a helpful reason to send Sam back to ‘73 and present a Time Life collection of 70s hits as a backdrop for all the polyester, misogynism and bad hair.

His ‘08 self is in a coma, which his ‘73 self soon figures out by receiving “messages” through TVs and radios that represent what his coma self is hearing — his doctor explaining Sam is in a vegetative state, his girlfriend telling his coma self that she’s OK. Sam thinks he’s dreaming, but he can’t get over how real the details of ‘73 are, and soon, he’s helping solve a murder with his new ‘73 squad that has ties to a murder he was just working on in ‘08. So … he’s in an alternate reality? This is where my brain started hurting.

Putting pieces together with the ease a “CSI” detective solves a crime by looking through a microscope, Sam in ‘73 learns that his ‘08 killer, Colin Raimes, was neighbors with the ‘73 killer, Willy Kramer. Sam talks with the kid version of Colin, learning that Colin looked up to Willy and was angry about his arrest. Sam guesses that older Colin was paying homage to Willy with his crimes, and in what could have been an insanely dark moment, he considers shooting young Colin to stop future murders, only to back down.

This is where things really don’t work: You can’t interact in the past with people you know in the future, unless you want to change events and potentially make the world explode, or something. If he were actually in the past, he could try and make a difference in the boy’s life to prevent him from growing up to kill people, but he seems to be in an alternate universe. So what’s the point? If he can’t actually change the past because he’s not in it, then how does it affect his future, which is really his present, which he’s in right now, as well as being in the past? Crap.

“Mars,” a remake of a 2006 BBC series, does its best to be a quirky mix of mystery and cop procedural and does an adequate job of generating interest in characters and plot, an impressive cast lending support to its tone and message — Harvey Keitel as the rules-shunning lieutenant, Gretchen Mol as the lone feathered-haired policewoman referred to as “No Nuts,” Michael Imperioli as some asshole detective. O’Mara is appealing as the dumbstruck Sam whom no one actually believes is from a different era, but Sam was given the gamut of emotions to sprint through in 44 minutes, making it hard to actually know what he’s like, much less why one of his selves in stuck in 1973.

“Mars” falls into the category of shows I can’t imagine developing beyond a single season. The pilot’s pacing was a bit fast, and the viewer is thrown into the alternate world just as quickly as Sam is. We’re just as confused, but fortunately for us, we’re not stuck there. The mystery isn’t significant enough to capture fans as, say, “Lost”— another show that doesn’t quite make sense, but with style. Mild curiosity will bring me back for a second or third episode, as will the likability of Sam and Mol’s Annie, but viewers need to know that the mystery is one worth waiting for, and soon.

Apparently, the key to liking the show is to not take its metaphysics remotely seriously. A quick scan of reviews show most critics enjoyed “Mars,” with one New York Times writer saying it “exhumes a raunchier, dirtier, more dangerous New York City, the one depicted in Serpico, Mean Streets and, most recently, American Gangster.” Raunchy? Dirty? Really? Maybe for broadcast TV, or maybe we should all chip in and buy the first season of “The Wire” and mail it to the Times.

“Life on Mars” isn’t dark or dangerous in reality. Well, maybe in an alternate one. It comes closer to being mindless entertainment.

“Life on Mars” airs at 10/9c Thursdays on ABC.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.

Gotta Get Back ... in Time

"Life on Mars" / Sarah Carlson

TV | October 16, 2008 |

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