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'Life on Mars'

The scene of the crime, 1973 style

September 14, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — For NEARLY two hours, the cast of "Life on Mars" had been shooting a short scene set inside a police precinct. As the day grew later, star Jason O'Mara, who plays New York Police Det. Sam Tyler, flubbed the name of the murder victim.

"It's Suzi Tripper!" he berated himself, walking back to his mark again.

It's no surprise that O'Mara was feeling the pressure. There's a lot riding on getting this latest take of "Life on Mars" right.

ABC's version of the popular British series about a modern-day detective who gets hit by a car and ends up back in 1973 has been stymied by stops and starts for almost two years.

Veteran television producer David E. Kelley shot the pilot for ABC in Los Angeles last summer, but network executives thought it didn't hew closely enough to the original BBC show. After Kelley left the project in the spring, ABC put "Life on Mars" in the hands of Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg, creators of the short-lived drama "October Road." They're now remaking the series in New York with a totally new cast, save O'Mara, the only actor kept from the first pilot.

The newest version of "Life on Mars" debuts Oct. 9 after "Grey's Anatomy," an enviable time slot that speaks to ABC's high hopes for the show, despite its circuitous path to the air.

Nemec admitted that the producers felt "some trepidation" taking over for Kelley, the purveyor of such hits as "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice." They opted not to watch his pilot in order to stay focused on the stylish spirit that distinguished the British series.

"We really wanted to pay a lot of tribute to what they did, because they made an incredible and beautiful show," Nemec said.

The newest adaptation seeks to capitalize on the cultural references conjured up by 1970s-era New York, a time of "Serpico" and "The French Connection." Scaffolding sheaths the newly built Twin Towers. Green-and-black police cars careen around the crime-ridden city. The smoky police precinct is populated by blunt-spoken detectives with thick sideburns and wide ties, barking into rotary phones.

For all of its period detail, the series has its roots in a crime procedural. On a recent August afternoon, the cast filmed a scene in which Tyler -- still dazed by his environs -- tries to convince a skeptical Lt. Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel) and Det. Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli) that he had figured out how their latest murder victim was killed.

It was the last day of work on the pilot episode, which had caused a bit of deja vu for O'Mara.

"I'm going to be very relieved after we've shot this," the Irish actor said during a brief break, perched on a bench in the set's jail cell. "This pilot has been sort of like an extra family member in my life [that I] can't quite get rid of. So it's going to be nice to have the first episode behind me, know that it's going to air and move on with the series."

In fact, after months of delays, the production is now barreling forward. In early August, Gretchen Mol signed on to play Annie Norris, a quiet feminist in the Police Women's Bureau who bonds with Tyler. Within a few weeks, she was on the set in Queens, shooting scenes.

"There's just a feeling of ready, set, go," Mol said.

Imperioli, who portrays a rough-edged detective who clashes with Tyler, said he decided to make "Life on Mars" in part because the show survived a difficult development process. It's his first series since "The Sopranos."

"Usually when a pilot is thought of as not good, it's kind of radioactive in the business and it just disappears," he said. "The fact that the studio really wanted to give this another chance, that made me think they thought it was something special."

O'Mara said the key to the series is that it "doesn't play out like science fiction, even though the premise is sort of mind-blowing. It asks substantial human questions."

Tyler hears dispatches from 2008 crackling over the radio, but he doesn't travel back and forth in time. And while he seeks out characters from his past, the show does not explore the future impact of those meetings.

"The spirit of 'Life on Mars' is not to be fussing too much about questions of the time-space continuum," Applebaum said. "It's about following this character's emotional journey."

The writers did make one major change to the source material: They came up with a new reason why Tyler is in 1973. In the two-season-long British show, the detective was in a coma, a solution that didn't lend itself to an open-ended series. So the American version offers up a dozen different explanations for Tyler's time travel. (O'Mara personally favors the theory that he's in purgatory.)

The producers, who worked together on ABC's often-confusing spy drama "Alias," promise they know the answer.

"That doesn't mean we know exactly every road we're going to go down," Nemec said. "But we know where we're going to end up."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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