“Life on Mars”
Thursdays at 10 p.m.
ABC

Courtesy of ABC

3.5 out of 5 stars

The latest British television import, “Life on Mars,” manages to stand out among all the cop shows flooding primetime. The show takes on some tricky and overused concepts — time travel, bad cops and psychoanalysis — and mixes them into something refreshingly new for American viewers.

“Life on Mars” follows Detective Sam Tyler, played superbly by Jason O’Mara (“The Agency”). Shortly after his girlfriend and colleague Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet, “High Fidelity”) is killed while tracking a murder suspect, Tyler is hit by a speeding car and wakes up in 1973. Upon visiting his office, Tyler finds that his modern colleagues have been replaced by some chauvinist “pigs,” including Detectives Chris Skelton and Ray Carling, played by Jonathan Murphy (“October Road”) and the amazing Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”). The boss of this boisterous team, and a quick enemy of Detective Tyler, is Lieutenant Gene Hunt, played by the suitably dark and gruesome Harvey Keitel (“Be Cool”). Tyler, as the only detective who isn’t extremely sexist, quickly befriends the office’s psychologist Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol, “3:10 to Yuma”) and shares a less-than-subtle sexual tension with her.

The cast is incredibly strong — one of the strongest in any primetime lineup — but, sadly, the writing isn’t. The writers struggle to stay in the ’70s: While some lines fit perfectly in 1973, many others seem straight out of the ’50s and ’60s, especially insults and sexist comments. These remarks also come up far more often than necessary. Even before the time jump, the romance between Tyler and Daniels lacks any originality, though it’s acted very well.

The plot of the show keeps the viewer guessing on a number of levels. “Mars” drops some clues that Tyler is in a coma and other hints that his experience is really happening. Not only is the suspense of this back-and-forth compelling, but it introduces a lot of psychological questions. A particularly well-shot scene shows Tyler looking 360-degrees around him, questioning whether his mind could really invent all these people and details. These questions bring Tyler and Norris closer together as she tries to convince him that she and everyone else around him are more than just figments of his imagination. It’s initially unclear why exactly Tyler was sent to this time in history, but this is slowly answered as he discovers clues in 1973 that he could’ve used to save Daniels. Sometimes, however, these clues seem a bit far-fetched, even for a show with time travel.

One of the show’s greatest successes is its amazing soundtrack. The show takes its name from the David Bowie song “Life on Mars,” which plays at a few crucial story moments. “Mars” also features tracks by The Who and The Rolling Stones. The lyrics are seamlessly integrated into the plot and the songs as a whole add to the cool ’70s aura.

“Life on Mars” doesn’t just stand out among cop shows, it stands out among primetime, network television.

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