Baby, baby, you're out of time ...
One: Harvey Keitel looks really old in HD.
Two: Michael Imperioli's '70s-era mustache is sa-weeeeeeeet.
Three: "Mars" is good, not great. It also has serious potential despite a few obvious flaws.
Based on a BBC drama of the same name, "Mars" starts with Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) talking about his hush-hush relationship with fellow cop Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet) before lurching into the crackdown of a serial killer in 2008. Nothing strange about that, right? The pace is fast and furious in the early-going -- Sam gruffly interrogates a creepy Joe Davola look-a-like, who has a diary that chronicles the imprisonment of a female victim. However, when their suspected killer shows up with a timestamped videotape showing he was in a Las Vegas casino at the time of the murder, the police find their theory shot down and Mr. Marbles (we'll use another "Seinfeld" reference because he claims to like the game of marbles) is free to roam the streets.
With the help of Lester Freamon from "The Wire" (Woo-hoo, Clarke Peters!), they soon discover Mr. Marbles has a twin brother, and ... well, by that time, it's too late. Marbles has decided to hunt down Maya -- who was following him because she was convinced something was "off" about his alibi -- leaving a sinister clue in the form of her bloody T-shirt on a run-down playground ride. A frantic Sam races to the suspect's last known address, running from his car as "Life on Mars" from David Bowie is playing on his iPod and .... BAM! ... he's blindsided by an automobile in the middle of the street.
Here's where it gets ... er, groggy. When Sam comes to, he's wearing a leather jacket and wide lapels, his unrecognizable car has a Bowie 8-track playing "Mars," and yep ... New York City still has the World Trade Center as part of its skyline. The only thing that's missing is his "Welcome Back Kotter" lunchbox. Only in dreams, right?
With his drivers license also reflecting the era change, Sam tracks down his precinct and is greeted with the set of "Serpico." Imperioli plays a wisecracking cop who spouts nonsensical stuff like, "He''s crazier than a fruit bat at a cranberry convention," while Gretchen Mol is a lowly female cop nicknamed "No Nuts" who can't -- and won't, out of fear -- crack the intellectually inferior boys club. Then there's Mr. Keitel, who even at a frail-looking 70, plays a gritty, gutsy lieutenant who won't stand for a loopy Sam acting as though he just dropped out of the sky like some Van Damme-ian Timecop.
As I mentioned last week, the episode was poised to be littered with "Back to the Future"-style Marty-attempts-to-buy-a-Tab-in-1955 gags. Already, we see Sam asking for a Diet Coke, to the bemusement of a bartender. No one knows what a cell phone is ("I don't know what you're trying to sell ...") and Sam's foray into a New York City record store (the same one he claims he bought his first Hall and Oates record in before quickly changing it to Led Zeppelin for cred's sake) leads to an amusing exchange about mp3s and how he wishes he could bring all the vinyl "back with him." (As an aside, the music in "Mars" is fantastic. "Baba O'Riley," "Little Willy" during a chase scene, and "Out of Time" by the Stones, the latter track especially perfect. Even if the show bombs, expect a decent soundtrack in stores. And don't ever, EVER, diss Hall and Oates again, "Mars.")
As for the main action, the pilot balances two plot strands: the mystery of Sam's time transport with the need to solve an actual murder with his new, "wild and crazy" 1973 cohorts (unruly, mustachioed '70s cops don't play by the rules or need no stinkin' DNA tests). Sam can't quite convince himself that he's really moved back in time -- and why would any sane person? -- yet he also figures that what's happening around him has far too much detail to be make believe. When Mol's character puts Sam's hand on her heart, he appears ready to pop out of his skin. Then again, at one point Sam is also convinced the TV screen is talking to him -- in the same fashion a doctor would as he pokes and prods at a patient with severe head trauma. The running conversation -- Sam trying to SCREAM that he's, in fact, awake and aware -- resembles the inner monologue one would have as a coma patient. It's masterfully done.
For all those brilliant touches, there's also a heavy-handedness that needs to be eased in future episodes. At least in the pilot, the show doesn't trust the audience to connect obvious dots. The wink, wink Diet Coke jokes will also eventually lose steam, but it's important that "Mars" not abandon its unique premise. Just turning into a '70s cop show where Sam is comfortable being his adult self -- when, in fact, he should be 3 or something -- would mean a lost opportunity. Can Sam track himself down as a child? Should he stop known murders before they happen? Can he pull the trigger on Bin Laden so the towers are always left standing? It's sort of "Lost"-ian in that respect, which makes for a promising set of tricky questions and answers. Same goes for the ongoing mystery of whether Sam is really a time traveler or hallucinating in a hospital bed.
Not knowing how the BBC series concluded, it's safe to say that after only one episode, American "Mars" could either be really great or really awful. In the pilot's final scene, the past and present merge as it becomes clear how Mr. Marbles became inspired to kill in 2008. His neighbor, a David Berkowitz look-a-like, is the baddie Sam tracks down in 1973 -- and the lonely, lost red-headed boy next door is distraught over the capture of his hero. Thanks to another marbles reference, Sam realizes who he's looking at and tightly grips a gun in the car as if eliminating the boy in 1973 will keep Maya safe in 2008. Just then, Maya's voice can be heard in Sam's car and she tells him, "I'm OK." Crisis averted.
It's a choppy, slightly cheesy scene -- in fact, a lot of the pilot is pretty ragged in terms of rhythm -- but there's a strong sense of panic from Sam's perspective. Sam wouldn't be a hero for killing a boy who has yet to harm anyone, so you pretty much know it's not going to happen. Yet it presents a moral dilemma for future episodes. What 2008 Sam knows will both haunt and taunt him. How that's handled will go a long way toward "Life of Mars" being a success or failure.
I'll keep watching until I determine which category it belongs in.
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, firstname.lastname@example.org
Labels: Life on Mars