Leaping Through Time & Jumping the Pond: ABC's Life on Mars

Waitaminute … coverage of a cop show? On Newsarama??

Okay, okay, but Life On Mars isn't your ordinary cop show. Because the show's star Detective Sam Tyler is reliving the good old days … literally …

Based on the BBC’s Life on Mars series, ABC’s quirky remake once again finds the cop involved in a car accident which somehow sends him reeling back to the year 1973. Now a fish out of water in this primitive time, Tyler must help solve crimes while piecing together how he landed here and more importantly, how to get back home.

In a conference call, series Executive Producer Josh Appelbaum and Irish actor Jason O'Mara talked about turning back the clock and Life on Mars.

Newsarama: Josh, if the original pilot was lacking in some sense, what’s great about the one we’re going to see this week? And can you talk about the opportunity to rework the show with such an all-star cast?

Josh Appelbaum: Yeah, we were fans of the original BBC show and the only thing we set out to do was to honor the spirit of that show which was really extraordinary. A cop show set in 1973, we were given the opportunity to move the show to New York, where the BBC version took place in Manchester which was fantastic for the European version, but we’re doing the U.S. version. I don’t know what’s more evocative than 1973 New York.

Then beyond that, we knew we had this wonderful lead in Jason [O'Mara] who is going to sort of be the audience’s eyes and ears. Speaking of the cast, Jason is such a great sort of vessel because he has a great humanity, humor, and relatability to him.

But then when we’re now in 1973 in New York, we’re like what speaks to that time, and then Harvey Keitel….. It was like “If we can get a Harvey Keitel-type that would be fantastic” and then we got Harvey himself, which was a dream come true. And if we could get a Michael Imperioli-type, that would be a dream, and then we got Michael.

It just all worked out in a perfect order. To us, the best thing about bringing it to the States is moving it to New York and then being able to put these quintessential New York actors in that world is just very exciting for us.

NRAMA: Jason, can you talk a little about the challenge of taking on a show that people are perhaps already familiar with and putting your own spin on it?

Jason O'Mara: Well, of course some people are familiar with it because of the success of the BBC show, but I would hazard a guess that a lot of the people that are tuning in on Thursday, October 9, in America either haven’t heard of the original or haven’t seen it. So we’re trying to introduce this whole show and this whole concept is a new way. And yes, we are putting our own spin on it.

But as Josh said, we’re still trying to present it in the spirit and tone of how it was on the BBC, but there are very specific differences. One of the major differences is, and I know this isn’t very exciting to talk about, but on American network television, there’s a six-act structure and we only have 42 minutes to tell our story. That immediately puts certain restrictions on how we tell our story. We’re never going to be able to have a full hour like the BBC did so we have to tell the story in a much more economical way and that’s a challenge in itself.

NRAMA: Concerning the “rules” of the show, in the pilot Sam seems to be communicating with 2008 using different forms of technology such as the doctors on the TV and Maya is on the car radio. Is that going to be a recurring element of the show, or are we supposed to trust those communications are real? They seem to indicate that Sam is in a hospital somewhere or he’s in a coma…

O'Mara: I’m sorry but before you say anything, can I just clarify that? 2008 communicates with Sam, he doesn’t communicate with 2008.

Appelbaum: That’s actually part of the rules, and something that’s part of his journey, is he gets these dispatches and will continue to. One of his frustrations, one of his goals, is to be able to actually get a two-way line somewhere which is certainly part of his quest. In terms of the bigger picture, literally the first scene of Episode 2 is Sam in the squad room late at night standing by a blackboard. Annie comes in, finds him, and he’s written down these 13 things on the board and 12 of them are different options. Sam’s doing what the audience would do, which is to say “Okay, what the hell is going on here?”

And he’s written down all the options of what could possibly be happening to him. Am I in a coma? Have I traveled through time? Am I dead and in purgatory or heaven or hell? Is there some inter-dimensional ripple here? He’s gone through the entire list and each one of those options will be explored in the first 13 episodes of these different possibilities as Sam tries to piece together what’s happening to him. Again, the one piece of the mythology that we’re veering from is there was a certainty in the British version that Sam was in a coma. That certainty doesn’t exist in our incarnation.

NRAMA: Josh, you guys mentioned at the TCA Press Tour that you were making one key change in the mythology to potentially allow it to go longer than 16 episodes or however long the BBC show ran. How soon will we see that change?

Appelbaum: That blackboard I just described sort of starts that. Again, there’s all these options as to what’s going on. There really wasn’t even much of a discussion of options beyond I’m insane, I’m in a coma, or I’ve traveled back in time. We have 10 more options all of which are possible. And then there’s always the x-factor which is what the real answer might be. But even physically in terms of what you’re watching in the second episode, there will be an event, or visitor I should say, that will come into Sam’s life that will open up the mystery.

NRAMA: Have you guys paid attention to some of the other period shows that have been on television lately, be it Mad Men, Swingtown, or anything like that, to get ideas of how to be period-correct, but have everything be brand new 1973 models?

Appelbaum: I’m a huge fan of Mad Men and if there’s one thing that was really important to us was not doing a send up of the 70’s, not doing a parody of it, but of actually doing something that felt like it lived organically in time.

And I can say it because I can take the least amount of credit for it, but I think that’s one of the great successes of the show. It’s not all about lava lamps, bellbottoms, and that kind of stuff.

To me, what I’ve been seeing is not just perhaps how 1973 actually was back then but how 1973 was portrayed through the movies of the time like Serpico and French Connection. It evokes something sort of nostalgic and romantic while also being gritty and dangerous. That’s the only way I can put it.

NRAMA: You mentioned there is going to be a visitor in episode 2 and there were some stills that had Lisa Bonet in them. Is she going to be turning up in a lot of upcoming episodes?

Appelbaum: She will. Again, one of Sam’s goals in the show is to return to the love separated through time, Maya. Maya will be trying to communicate with Sam as he’s trying to communicate with her. Lisa is going to appear in several episodes in the first run of the show for sure.

NRAMA: Jason, did the New York cop accent give you any trouble?

O'Mara: Josh and I sat down to talk about this a couple of months before we started production and he said “You know, we do want this New York flavor to this” and he was absolutely right. I mean, if we’re going to move this show to New York and if Sam Tyler is a New York cop from 2008, no matter how cosmopolitan or well traveled he is, he would still have this dialect.

We talked about it, I talked to a couple of dialect coaches, and then went back to the guys and said “Is there any chance that I could bring this dialect coach with me into production and have him with me on set?” The producers graciously agreed.

So I work with a dialect coach every day. And what’s really challenging about it is that we didn’t want to just do a stereotypical New York accent where everybody sounds like that gangstery or too cop-like. We wanted to give it a subtle flavor so that was really the challenge. It’s harder to do a subtle accent of any region than to do an immediately recognizable Italian New York accent, or a Jewish New York accent, or an Irish New York accent.

I’ve tried to blend a few things together to just give it a flavor and I’ve been happy with the work we’ve been doing so far. But it definitely adds another dimension, if complication, to the process when the script comes through. I can’t just worry about my lines; I also have to worry about how I pronounce the words.

NRAMA: What do the folks back home think of you coming over here to redo a British TV series?

O'Mara: A lot of them have been quite supportive really. I know there’s a lot of fans of the British show that can’t believe we are remaking something that’s perfect. But we’re trying to bring this to a mainstream American audience and the only way to do that is to reinvent it for network television here.

And I think a lot of my friends, and even a lot of my people or friends who are in the entertainment business in both London and Dublin, get it and see it as a viable project. And yeah, they’ve been very supportive. They’ve been logging onto the ABC website and watching clips and information about the show. They’re all really excited for me which is lovely.

Twitter activity