Life On Mars
was one of the most thrilling shows on British TV in recent years, the story of a cop who gets in a car accident and finds himself in the early 1970s. An American remake started up, produced by Ally McBeal's David E. Kelley, and it had one of the worst pilots I've ever seen. A retooled version, with new producers and a cast headlined by Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Moll and Lisa Bonet, airs next Thursday at 10 on ABC. After talking to star Jason O'Mara and producer Josh Appelbaum today, I'm mildly optimistic. Spoilers, and more new preview videos, below. O'Mara and Appelbaum took part in a conference call with reporters today, and they talked about the changes they were making to the British version of the time-travel cop drama. I was somewhat startled to hear O'Mara's Irish accent — I hadn't realized he's yet another one of the giant crop of non-U.S. actors doing fake American accents. Apparently he has a "dialect coach" with him on the set every single day, to help him do a convincing New York cop voice. His accent is great, but he may suffer from the same wooden delivery that affected Michelle Ryan in Bionic Woman , because he has to worry about the accent all the time. Women on Mars: I asked them about the show's female characters. Sam's girlfriend, Maya, is back in 2008, but with a big-name actress like Lisa "Cosby Show" Bonet playing her, it seems like they'd want to feature her a lot. And indeed, we'll be seeing a fair bit of her in upcoming episodes, while Sam is stuck in 1973 and trying to communicate with her. His big goal is to return to his true love in 2008. (It sounds as though they're downplaying the idea that Maya is Sam's ex -girlfriend.) Meanwhile, I asked about Annie Cartwright, the female cop Sam works with (and flirts with) in 1973. It sounds as though they're trying to create a Sam/Annie/Maya love triangle, of sorts. The original Annie, in the discarded pilot, gave a very flat performance and mostly just seemed to be there as a prop for Sam to show he's less sexist than the 70s cops. But now she's played by Gretchen Moll (Bettie Page ). She'll have an even tougher time than the British Annie, because it "takes a lot of balls" to be a woman cop in 1973 New York, says Appelbaum. "She's going to have this wonderful arc where she's in the subjugated role" at first, but eventually she'll become a detective in her own right. "There's a sweetness and a vulnerability that we're really happy with," Appelbaum added. Says O'Mara, "Over the episodes, in a very subtle way, she starts to do her own detective work... Sam really starts to notice that she really could become a detective if given a chance. That's sort of a bond that goes between them that they really support each other in their struggles." Harvey Keitel, stretching out: Probably the main reason you even care about this show is that it's Harvey Keitel's first foray into a regular TV role. Appelbaum says this gives Keitel a chance to do something he's never done before — develop a character over the long haul. Instead of giving a performance that lasts two hours, Keitel can keep building the character of bad-ass boss cop Gene Hunt over time. "One thing he's always been able to do is, on top of the humor and strength, he's been able to bring some humanity to his roles, as vile as they've been, [so they have] something sympathetic to them." As each episode goes by, Keitel will be peeling back the layers of Gene Hunt, and the writers will put the character into new situations. It won't just be the same thing every week, like an old-school cop show. Also, the show's science fiction elements will help keep it unpredictable, says Appelbaum: "As the show goes forward. it's unconventional in many ways, as the cop work melds with these science fiction elements. "It's out of control in these wild and unexpected ways." What's the deal with Sam's time travel? In the British version, it's pretty clear that Sam is in a coma in 2008, and the 1973 stuff is all in his head. But because the ABC remake wants to keep the mystery alive for dozens of episodes, instead of just 16, the show will keep its options more open. Sam will be receiving messages from 2008, and searching for a way to communicate back. And Appelbaum hinted that he would eventually find it. In the British version, Sam has really only three options for what's happening: he's time-traveled, he's in a coma and dreaming, or he's gone insane. But the American version will add another 10 possibilities, for a total of 13. Including the idea that Sam is dead and in purgatory. At the start of the second episode, Annie walks in on Sam writing all 13 possibilities on a chalkboard. And the show's first 13 episodes will each explore one of those possibilities. "In the second episode, there'll be a visitor that will come into Sam's life that alone will open up the mystery significantly," says Appelbaum. The 1970s feel: Appelbaum and O'Mara were very emphatic that they don't want to send up the 1970s, despite that infamous TV spot that featured KC and the Sunshine Band. "It's not all about lava lamps and bell bottoms," says Appelbam. They're trying to do a realistic period show in the vein of Mad Men or Swingers . And they're doing a ton of outdoor shooting, mostly in the less-gentrified Outer Boroughs. The camera takes in the whole scene, in a 360 degree sweep. And every single period detail has to be perfect. Sometimes, 150 extras have to be dressed up with 1970s clothes, hair and props. Also, the show's music will almost all be from 1970 to 1973, but it won't necessarily be like a greatest hits album. You'll hear more obscure tracks from that era oftentimes. So after watching the new footage of Keitel in action, and hearing from Appelbaum and O'Mara, I'm definitely more optimistic. What do you think?