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TV Series Review

ABC's new drama Life on Mars adds a creative, time-warp twist to TV police procedurals. In 2008, detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) is feverishly pursuing a serial killer when he's hit by a car and knocked into la-la land. But this oddly psychedelic land of la happens to be New York City circa 1973. Sam wakes up to find his iPod replaced by an 8-track player and his cell phone replaced by, well, nothing.

This dazed detective struggles for meaning behind his era-jumping dilemma. Is he dead? In a coma? Has he been sent back by some supernatural means to devise solutions for modern crimes and work through childhood woes? (He sometimes gets to observe himself as a young boy.) For now, he's as clueless as a castaway on Lost.

Sam finds himself deposited in an archaic police department filled with characters better fitting an old Dirty Harry movie. These guys—especially rough-edged, flask-toting Lieutenant Hunt (Harvey Keitel)—are more than ready to twist a few arms and break a few rules (or the other way around) if the situation demands. Then there's the lone female on the squad, Annie (Gretchen Mol), a pretty psych grad who assures Sam that his delusions of the future are, logically, a byproduct of his accident. Of course, if Sam desires a more existential explanation, he can always turn to the usually strung-out and occasionally naked hippie girl who lives down the hall.

Within that mind-bending tableau, Sam solves crimes and inches ever closer to figuring out where he really is ... and how to find his way home. But this absorbing drama also inches into subjects such as homosexuality, sadism and the murder of children. Crime scenes are often bloody as well.

Although Sam is an upright, likeable guy who aims to tread the straight and narrow, that's not true of the dingy decade in which he sloshes around. Sex, booze and drugs are the norm. In one episode, for instance, Sam's beer is spiked with LSD, and he ends up envisioning himself having sex with several women, including a youthful version of his mother. When fellow cops kick down his door the next day, they find him naked and handcuffed to the bed. Yes sir, things go south at times, among them occasionally profane dialogue.

On the other hand, an exploration of Mars will yield positive snapshots of friendship, mentoring, racial equality and religious faith. It's an unusual, imaginative mix, all dressed up in 1970s garb and awash with the music of the day. Too bad the network censors employed by ABC in the '70s didn't come along for the ride.

Episodes Reviewed: Oct. 9, 16, 23, 30, Nov. 6, 2008

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Bob Hoose

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