Well, of course you’re going to feel like it’s 1973 again when you watch ABC’s Life on Mars. Harvey Keitel is in it. He hasn’t stopped oozing 1973 since he was a mean-streets member of the original Scorsese mob, and as Detective Gene Hunt, a barrel-chested bruiser who likes to use his fists as exclamation points when talking, his casting practically forgoes the design team’s need for rotary phones, wide lapels and sedans with doors the size of refrigerators. It’s shrewd casting, because although the show is told from the vantage of modern-day New York cop Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) — who suddenly finds himself in an eight-track time warp where dirtier, un-PC investigation techniques are the norm — it doesn’t work if the past in which Sam finds himself isn’t, well, present.
Nothing against Philip Glenister, who originated the role of Hunt on the British series of the same name and was fun to watch [see “That Seventies Cop,” Abele’s review of the original series, at laweekly.com], but what he did was acting. Keitel just is — like weather — which, frankly, is all a recurring role on a television series needs sometimes: an immutable, living force. That said, O’Mara’s Sam is incredibly engaging, and I’m pleased with how well this Americanization of an already very fine piece of flinty cop nostalgia is going. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Keitel’s time-capsule brutality — already a lively antidote to the brainiac psych-profile wonk-cops O’Mara is meant to represent — led me to wish the show had a reverse viewpoint: the badge-wearing bastard saddled with a wacko who thinks he’s from the future. It’s fun watching Life on Mars and thinking, what would Popeye Doyle do?