Harvey Keitel (l) and Jason O'Mara in 'Life on Mars'
ABC TV’s American version of the much-lauded BBC police drama Life on Mars is off to a good start, but sustaining the show’s quality will be difficult.

When ABC TV first announced plans to produce a series based on the excellent BBC show Life on Mars, it seemed unlikely that the American version could approach the quality of the original. And when ABC announced that Harvey Keitel would play the American version of DI Gene Hunt, it seemed very unlikely that, talented as he is, he could be nearly as interesting and formidable a character as Philip Glenister’s original characterization.

With the first episode of the ABC version having run last Thursday and episode 2 coming tonight, it’s clear that the American version of Life on Mars is no carbon copy of the English version but is very good television in its own right.

The concept of the show is the same as the original: police detective Sam Tyler is suddenly and inexplicably transported into the 1970s after being hit by a car while on a case. As in the BBC version, he finds that he has been newly assigned to a different precinct, one rife with corruption and cigarette smoking (although not nearly as much of the latter as was the norm during the time period; apparently anti-tobacco attitudes in Hollywood prevent commonsense realism).

While Sam tries to figure out how he got bounced into a time when he was just a child (and the viewer is encouraged to do likewise), he is plunged into a puzzling homicide investigation and must try to find a serial killer (of course).

The critical difference between the UK and U.S. versions is that whereas the former was done in two series of about a half-dozen episodes apiece, the latter is open-ended, and the premise would have to hold up over many more episodes if the show succeeds.

The mystery investigation aspect of the premiere episode is handled quite well and provides some little insights into human life, but the show’s major interest is in Sam’s relationship with his new boss, Lt. Gene Hunt. Hunt is entirely a results guy, flouting the rules continuously in order to capture the villains and put them away, and is the type who is always certain he know exactly who the bad guys are. In short, a 1970s TV cop.

Sam, by contrast, is a rather more contemplative and process-oriented type, and he is appalled by Hunt’s predilection for procedural shortcuts. In short, a contemporary TV cop.

This contrast is embedded thoroughly in the two characters’ personalities: Sam is analytical and sometimes paralyzed by indecision, while Gene is intuitive and sometimes overly precipitous in his actions. Each, moreover, is an idealist in his own way, wanting to clean up a truly repugnant place. Jason O’Mara (as Sam) and Harvey Keitel (Hunt) do an excellent job of bringing these characters to life as powerful personalities with interesting nuances and complex motives and combinations of ideas.

Thus the two characters’ differing personalities make the show more than an exercise in self-satisfiaction in the superiority of our present time over a benighted earlier period of history. Although Sam and Gene are definitely men of their different times, the show doesn’t skew opinions entirely in Sam’s favor. On the contrary, as in the original it’s made clear that the best way is a proper balance between procedure and pragmatism.

The setting—New York City in the 1970s—is an excellent place to explore these ideas, and it’s recreated vividly in the characterizations, fashions, and settings (many of which appear to be computer-generated). The two women in Sam’s life—present-day girlfriend Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet) and 1970s colleague Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol)—add poignance to the show. Sam longs to return to the present day to save Maya from a serial killer, while finding himself attracted to Annie as a friend and something of a project (to turn her into a superachiever by overcoming her acceptance of the imperfections of society).

In all, Life on Mars does a fine job of taking a limited-run English TV series and setting the plate for a possibly longer run on U.S. television. The real test will be whether it can keep the story line going without undermining the interest in the original premise by spending too much or too little time on Sam’s quest to return to the present day and explaining exactly what happened.

That will be a difficult thing to accomplish, but the team is off to a good start.