That Seventies Cop 

Life on Mars, sideburns required

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006

For a long time now, detective series have been digging a rut in our brains from the boring back-and-forth between procedural flashiness and predictable cynicism. But Life on Mars, a hit British show making its U.S. debut Monday night on BBC America, cultivates the conceptual punch of the detective storytelling gimmick, and in the process revitalizes the shopworn genre.

It’s a breezily simple story to explain: 2006 cop becomes 1973 cop. Detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a smart-suited, sensitively hip Manchester crime fighter with the latest technological advances in perp tracking at his disposal. But when a car hits him one day during the hunt for a serial killer, he wakes up a policeman in a very different world: one of wide lapels and sideburns, crackly radios instead of cell phones, unchecked police brutality and the blaring sounds of The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” and Wings’ “Live and Let Die.” Okay, he can’t hear the songs — they’re on the soundtrack for our benefit — but what Sam does hear in moments freakier than his already freaky how-the-hell-did-I-wind-up-here moments are the hospital pings and hushed voices that indicate he’s a present-day coma patient on a very bizarre consciousness side trip.

But don’t mistake the slick-but-not-stupid Life on Mars for brain-bending sci-fi or Austin Powers–style farce. Aside from the psychological stress of its star — who is trying to determine if he’s nuts, a dream-world lost cause or in possession of the tools to correct his predicament — this is actually at heart an old-school cops-and-robbers show, with that dash of Twilight Zone to give it 21st-century cachet. Creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah don’t want you to distance yourself from their premise as if you were on a museum tour of pre–Diet Coke days. Although their cop-culture points of reference may be different, the gist is that they want you to love Quinn Martin productions and hard-knuckle law-enforcement guys like Mannix all over again, but at the same time reflect on their tough-guy ways. Because, hey, it may suddenly be 1973, but there are still bad guys to collar. That’s why Life on Mars keeps the ha-ha no-computers gags to a minimum and jumps right into the knotty drama of having Sam try to figure out how to merge his more thoughtful, rules-aware police methods with the archaic-seeming modus operandi of men like his new-but-not-really boss Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), a brutish, sexist, evidence-planting believer in keeping crooks off the street by any means necessary. (You enjoyed the buddy format once too, remember?)

The setup is so enjoyably thorny that you don’t always side with Sam either, especially when he whines about why he felt compelled to release from custody an obviously guilty guy: “But we didn’t have any evidence!”

If you’ve seen the great miniseries thriller State of Play, you know that I’m going to tell you that star John Simm is trustily excellent as Sam: emotionally on target as a lost soul and charmingly smart as a by-the-book sleuth. And he’s well-matched with Glenister, who has an engaging snarl and a wonderfully light touch playing the humor of an old dog — remember, he’s also experiencing his own measure of head scratching, thanks to his often puzzled-looking, future-obsessed new investigator. Everyone’s take on Mars is relative.

In the end, Life on Mars makes us realize we’ve all been crime-show accident victims in a collective trance for far too long — and it’s time to wake up.

LIFE ON MARS | BBC America | Mondays, 10 p.m.

When Brainiacs Rule

Sci Fi has an admirably clever concept for a new original series too: What if all the country’s top geniuses got to live in their own special little Pacific Northwest town, where the view is bucolic, kids are free to scrawl math equations on the sidewalk, and the government can keep a tight leash on the people inventing the future? Inevitably the spirit of unfettered science might lead to some peace-maintaining problems, and that’s where the need for solid, no-nonsense law enforcement might be a priority.

First off, though, you’d have to decide if your premise was best suited for Northern Exposure–style comedy or X-Files–ish creepiness, and that’s where Eureka is like a lab experiment unsure of what it’s trying to prove. The two-hour pilot that debuted this week — and which will be repeated on the weekend before next Tuesday’s new episode — is a well-made, entertaining enough introduction to this scenario, but it starts jumping in different directions so quickly that it loses focus.

Our entry into the series is a dedicated but wry U.S. marshal named Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson), whose car crashes on the outskirts of Eureka while he’s trying to escort home his runaway teenage daughter, Zoe (Jordan Hinson). During their stay, however, a prominent scientist family’s kid mysteriously disappears, along with a scooped-out chunk of their R.V. Suddenly, what seemed like the garden-variety eccentricities of a small town expose themselves to Jack as symptoms of a peculiarly arranged marriage between a thirst for progress and quality of life. When Jack impresses a Department of Defense official (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) with his investigative skills, she decides he’s groovy enough to be let in on the secret of this unique company town, especially when more unexplained incidents start leading to loss of life.

I like the idea of turning the ups and downs of a nerd’s paradise into a quirky ensemble serial — and with solid character actors like Joe Morton as your friendly, brilliant garage mechanic and Ally McBeal alum Greg Germann as a neurotic think-tank head, there’s lots that’s appealing here. But as the pilot’s plot unfolds, the convergence of save-the-day action and oddball humor starts to feel forced, and a certain charm is lost. By the time the special effects take over, we’ve moved out of the realm of the human and into the arena of ho-hum race-against-time stuff. And because creators/writers Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia are less adept with suspense plotting than with geek humor, you’ll figure out how to prevent the doomsday scenario from happening in the final crisis moments before even common-sense Jack. And really, I’d rather not be the smartest one when I’m watching a show about a town filled with brainiacs.

EUREKA| Sci Fi | Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Hamilton Burger’s Groundhog Day

We all grew up learning that Perry Mason was smarter than everyone else. That’s the way readers and audiences liked it. He was the defense lawyer who cared enough about keeping his clients out of jail that he went so far as to do the other side’s job too. And when he’d unveil the real killers in the courtroom, they’d cave instantly. Over countless Erle Stanley Gardner books and then the legendary TV series from 1957 to 1966 — the first season of which came out on DVD this month — Mason (the role of a lifetime for that sonorously voiced actor with the Tasmanian Devil build, Raymond Burr) humiliated District Attorney Hamilton Burger (crusty-faced William Talman) so many times you wonder how Burger ever kept his job. But as much as I’ve enjoyed the fantasy justice world of Perry Mason since I was a kid, it’s also fun to occasionally view the series as a hellish continuum in a prosecutor’s anguished mind. Perhaps Mason only ever pulled his courtroom-confession theatrics a few times, but they were debilitating enough to give his nemesis the predictable nightmares of a never-wrong defense lawyer the rest of his professional life. And that’s what we’re watching: Groundhog Day starring Hamilton Burger. Just a thought.

PERRY MASON: Season 1, Volume 1 (1957) | $49.99

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