TV land is well acquainted with time travel. You got your Quantum Leap, your Do Over, your Futurama, your Journeyman, your Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. You got that increasingly inscrutable ancient-Japan subplot in Heroes ...
The list goes on. And, with three of those examples debuting in the last three years and another (Futurama) continuing to churn out straight-to-DVD feature films, public desire for time travel seems at a fever pitch. Maybe that’s because we as a nation find ourselves at the end of a long, sharp slope into any number of existential crises and time-travel shows cater to our escapism fantasies by brokering primarily in second chances and wrongs righted.
Somewhat ironically, Life on Mars, the show with the potential to be the best of this thoroughly American bunch, is both a British remake (the eponymous BBC series premiered in 2006) and seems so far completely unconcerned with second chances. Jason O’Mara (looking like a raffish, principled Mel Gibson, pre-alcohol-induced-anti-Semitism) plays Detective Sam Tyler. In a panic upon discovering his girlfriend (Lisa Bonet) is endangered by a serial killer, Tyler walks into traffic, gets run over, and wakes up in 1973.
Far from time-traveling for a purpose, Tyler doesn’t even know if he’s actually time-traveling. Everyone he broaches the subject with thinks he’s just crazy. Tipping the scales further toward crazy — or maybe comatose — Tyler hears voices that sound like his friends in 2008 and has visions of lunar rovers. Doctors speak to him through television sets.
Three episodes in, where most shows of the ilk would have settled upon a solve-the-mystery or fix-the-past-to-get-home plot trope, Tyler doesn’t even know where and when home is — 1973 or 2008. Sure seems to him like 2008 is the right answer. Everyone in the metaphysically mixed up early ’70s, though, from cute female cop Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol) to some random Hari Krishna (“Tomorrow is an illusion, one that hypnotizes the conventional man into a deep, deep sleep”), tells him there’s no time but the present.
The chief joy of Life on Mars, then, isn’t the catharsis of seeing the future fixed or justice done, but the queasy, godless feeling that there might not be any great justice to do, and that there might not be a future to fix.
That, and hearing Lieutenant Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel) constantly counter Tyler’s hopelessly 2008 assertions with awesomely un-PC 1973-isms. (Tyler: “His murder is looking more and more like a hate crime.” Hunt: “As opposed to an ‘I really, really like you crime?’”) At its best, then, Life on Mars offers a critique of the present through the eyes of the fairly recent past. •
My Own Worst Enemy Weird — a Christian Slater project that takes itself way too seriously. Slater plays a spy who didn’t until recently realize he was a spy (dual-personality thing; you understand). (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m.)
The Mentalist Easy-on-the-eyes Simon Baker plays a rule-flouting investigator with superhuman powers of observation and a faked past as a psychic. Guy’s kind of a dick, and we like that. (CBS, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.)
Pushing Daisies One of our favorite shows from last season is still good (though not as good), and also apparently on the chopping block. Obama’s campaign infomercial beating it out by millions of viewers last week probably didn’t help. Save it. (ABC, Wednesdays, 7 p.m.)