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The murky mystery that is 'Mars'

June 02, 2008|SCOTT COLLINS | CHANNEL ISLAND

David E. Kelley, the prolific writer-producer behind such era-encapsulating hits as "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," wrote the script for the pilot to "Life on Mars," a new time-traveling cop drama from ABC. It's based on the BBC show of the same name, which already has a cult following over here due to its run on BBC America.

So, given its rarefied status plus the Kelley pedigree, "Life on Mars" instantly looked like a must-watch for any viewer's fall TV list. And it may prove to be a great show. But with its premiere still months away, the series has already suffered an exceptionally bumpy ride into the future, even by the Alice-in-Wonderland standards of television program development.

The network and producers are talking about tossing out the pilot and starting over. Or not; maybe they'll just tweak a few details. Some of the actors might get canned. Not necessarily, though. One thing we know for sure: Over the last few days, the decision was made to move the series out of Los Angeles -- in both its setting and its production -- to shoot on location in New York City, giving it a very different look.

Oh, and about Kelley? He almost certainly won't have anything to do with the show from now on. Well-informed people profess not to know whether he'll receive his customary executive producer credit or even whether his name will be on the pilot.

Really? Will Kelley talk to us about what happened?

He will? Great!

Oh, wait. He won't be available till after deadline? Uh, sure, we'll talk to his agent instead. Yes, we understand -- totally off the record.

Sigh.

The things we don't know about ABC's "Life on Mars" could fill more space, alas, than this column is allowed. And that's even after sources were asked nicely. We must say, everyone seemed calm, considering the circumstances, but also confused. Having to tiptoe so discreetly around so many sources' hot spots made us feel like we were investigating a ghastly sex crime instead of the origins of a TV pilot.

But in the end, we were able to cobble together a rough idea of what happened when a big-name producer in need of his next hit collided with headstrong, strike-numbed network executives riding the wave of multiple foreign TV hits crashing U.S. shores. The stakes are high, given that "Life on Mars" is ABC's only new drama entry this fall.

"Life on Mars" is only the best-known of at least half a dozen overseas programs that are being Americanized by broadcasters for next season. Of CBS' five new fall series, three are based on British series or miniseries: the dramas "Eleventh Hour" and "The Ex List" and the comedy "Worst Week." NBC has "Kath & Kim," based on the Australian comedy. And next year Fox will roll out the animated comedy "Sit Down, Shut Up," which is based, oddly enough, on a live-action series that had a brief and fairly unremarkable run in Australia.

Unlike homegrown shows, which can fail for an infinite variety of reasons, overseas series offer an illusion of safety. Someone has already thought through the narrative arc; a template of finished episodes exists. A programming executive can see how it all turned out before greenlighting the adaptation. Fantastic!

As "Life on Mars" shows, though, importing foreign TV ain't always that easy.

The original British series, which premiered in 2006, revolved around Sam Tyler, a Manchester detective who's transported back to 1973 after being hit by a car. Fans were enthusiastic about the series' wry mixture of time-travel and crime-procedural elements, as well as its blizzard of intricate references to David Bowie, "The Wizard of Oz" and other bits of pop culture.

Kelley, insiders say, was an early admirer of the show and quickly scooped up the remake rights. Another fan was ABC entertainment chief Steve McPherson, who coveted "Life on Mars" even though it didn't quite square with his network's female-centric program strategy, led by "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives."

ABC picked up the pilot, and Kelley set about writing the script. Jason O'Mara, an Irish actor previously seen as an investigator trying to clear the wrongly accused in ABC's short-lived "In Justice," was hired to play the lead.

This is where things got complicated, sources said. ABC executives felt the finished pilot departed too much from the British version and wanted reshoots. Those plans were interrupted by the strike, as well as by a skirmish among the network, Kelley and the 20th Century Fox Television studio over who would be responsible for the additional expenses.

Kelley, who had a longtime deal with Fox, recently left for Warner Bros. Television, although that move has nothing to do with the "Life on Mars" situation, several sources said. Given his track record, the "Ally McBeal" creator remains a big TV-industry name, but it's been a while since his last big hit. Several recent outings -- including Fox's "The Wedding Bells" and NBC's "The Law Firm" -- have tanked.

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