Monday, February 9, 2009

They Should Have Called It "Life on CSI: Miami"

"Life on Mars"

"Life on Mars" is on after "Lost" now, but I don't think ABC is doing itself any favors. Other analysts besides myself have noted how viewers of "Lost" have seldom been in the mood for another heavily serialized show like "The Nine" or "Day Break" right afterwards. A more mold-breaking programmer might try two half-hour comedies there and let people's brains take it easy.

"Life on Mars" is not anywhere as near mythology-dependent as "Lost," although it certainly is high-concept. The surreal moments and the clues as to why modern-day cop Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) woke up one day in 1973 fold just fine into week-by-week mysteries. I've just stepped in for the last two episodes and I don't feel hopelessly lost at all.

What I do fear, though, is that "Mars" won't see a sophomore season. It's got to be expensive to make, with a marquee cast and two competing levels of visual effects requirements. The real kicker is that with a single-season network order of 22 episodes, the American "Life on Mars" has all the episodes the British original did to tell its entire tale from start to end. With six to spare! Pacing it out like they've got to make the syndication magic number of 100, the American "Mars" producers have hardly moved things along at all. I just watched two episodes each with one absolutely dreary cop show cliché -- one where O'Mara unwittingly sleeps with the chief's daughter, and one where cop Michael Imperioli's little brother is a petty crook. With these actors, and this very intriguing concept, imagine what the writers might do if they were allowed to let the requirements of the story pace the show rather than the requirements of the network.

The miniseries has all but disappeared from network television as profit models have changed. Now it's all about owning your own shows through syndication rather than creating one-time ad windfalls. No network miniseries is ever going to bring in numbers like "Roots" or "Shogun" again. Anything intended for a run of longer than a week and shorter than seven years is the strict territory of cable, and subscription-based cable in particular. Does that necessarily have to be the case? DVD sales are changing revenue streams once again, and the networks have already let that affect their game plans in other ways. Fox would probably happily air "American Dad" and "Family Guy" without commercials, with the loot they make off of DVD sales, merchandising, and digital downloads from those shows. (That's one big reason you can't effectively censor either, too -- advertisers are welcome to pull their support since their money is a relative drop in the ocean.)

It would be cool if the networks tried to make single-season or shorter miniseries to compete with HBO's, with high production values and great actors. But the networks are highly averse to new ideas. They've only been in constant decline for 25 years, why mess with what's clearly working?

Two positive things about "Life on Mars": It's no wonder why Harvey Keitel agreed to take a small-screen regular role on this one. The suits must have pitched it to him exactly as it comes across on screen: He can work as much or as little as he wants to every week, and every moment he's on screen he's the coolest guy in the entire world. He's Winston Wolf only not dating frumpy old Julia Sweeney. And the other thing: I love the way that when the cops scrap with the Russian mob, or whomever, they fight 70's style, with everybody pairing off, clearly pulled and intentionally missed Jimmy Caan punches, and then the losers standing looking sad in a line afterwards. Delicious.

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