As a fan of the original British "Life on Mars," whose American makeover begins tonight on ABC, I approach the redo at a disadvantage. John Simm as time-shifted police Det. Sam Tyler and Philip Glenister as his rough-tough superior, Gene Hunt, are for me nearly inextricable from the characters they play. But I will try to pry them apart -- we don't judge Liev Schrieber's Hamlet against Richard Burton's, or Burton's by Barrymore's. There is room for variation.
And there is the good example of "The Office," which has outlived its British forebear by more than 40 episodes and has become its own beloved thing. The test of the new "Life on Mars" will be not how much it resembles the original but the extent to which it finds its own footing.
The opening episode, at least, closely follows the model, not only in plot and dialogue but often in specific shots. The New York Police Department's Sam Tyler (accent-suppressing Irish actor Jason O'Mara) is hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up in 1973, in Kojak's New York, where the twin towers still stand. (The show's title comes from the David Bowie song playing in his car when it happens -- on an iPod in the present and an eight-track player in the past.)
Dazed, he makes his way to his station house, which is now staffed by people he doesn't know: Ray (Michael Imperioli), who is salty, and Chris (Jonathan Murphy of "October Road"); Chief Detective Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), a thug who serves, and serves up, justice; and Annie (Gretchen Mol), an institutionally powerless but brainy policewoman to whom he explains his temporal quandary:
"That either makes me a time traveler, a lunatic or I'm lying in a hospital bed in 2008 and none of this is real." Flashes of 2008 -- people around that hospital bed, talking about or to him -- reach him, often through a television screen.
O'Mara, a more relaxed actor than Simm, told the Associated Press that the American writers had worked up "more than 13" possible explanations for Sam's predicament, which seem 10 too many to me. It's really beside the point why he is where he is: This is basically a poetic conceit, a device to talk about changing times and to put the main character under stress.
Sam belongs both to 2008 and 1973; on screen, the real and the dreamed are equally actual. It's a cop show, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a drama of displacement, a bit of a love story and, like "Mad Men," a romantic tour of the fash- ions and social mores of a past era.
I'm not wholly convinced by the American "Life on Mars." Some of the new dialogue is overripe ("You're here to make me curse the day my father's sperm asked my mama's egg if it could have this dance"), and there's a tendency to explain the obvious. And, while I am happy to see Keitel grace TV with his presence, I'm not yet sure he's big enough, physically, for this part. I might be wrong about that. And I'll be following with interest to see where it all goes.
'Life on Mars'
When: 10 p.m. today
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)