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''Life on Mars'': Recommended With a Caveat

By RD Heldenfels Published: July 24, 2006

The other night I sat up far too late watching episodes of ''Life on Mars,'' the intriguing British drama premiering at 10 tonight on BBC America. Since I am hip-deep in television every day because of the TV critics' tour, and since I only intermittently get enough sleep, it's even more impressive that the show kept me watching.

It stars actor John Simm as Sam Tyler, a modern police detective who has an accident and wakes up in 1973. He's also a cop all those years ago, only he has to deal with a different approach to law enforcement -- less forensic, more beat-out-a-confession -- and to life in general. And he may not be in the past at all; it's entirely possible he is in a coma and imagining the whole thing, especially when he starts walking into parts of his own life from all those decades ago.

''Seven years ago when we first decided to try and do this show, it was "he has
a car crash, and he wakes up and it's '73," '' series co-creator Matthew Graham said at a BBC America press conference awhile back. ''Iniitially that was our incentive. We just wanted to
get into a 1973 cop show, and we wanted to find a way in. But over the years, as I sort of endlessly
reworked it and rethought through the format, I realized that we needed something else. We needed
another element because it was so strange, what we were doing, that ... we needed
reality. And if he's in a coma -- and we don't say definitively that he is -- then it gives it -- somehow
it gives it a justification. It could be all in his head. And somehow we get away with it because of that esoteric angle, I think. Without it, it becomes a science fiction show about time travel.''

The show does well in presenting culture shock without getting ham-fisted about it, and the coma business does add a good subplot. But by the fourth episode, the differences between past and present are noted only sporadically -- and Sam is more focused on police work. There's also a good performance from Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt, Sam's boss in the past; over time we begin to see that his methods are questionable but, like Sam, he brings a sense of vocation to his job.

All that being said, I have to qualify my review because there may be another, better version of ''Life on Mars'' out there, one that we'll have to wait for on DVD. BBC America has edited the show to fit in commercials, with about 10 minutes taken out of each hour-long episode.

The breaks were noticeable in the BBC America version and more than once I felt as if something had been lost in an edited-out transition. Of course, it is also possible that the editing-down has improved the show, or at least made it more palatable to restless U.S. viewers. And I did enjoy it in the U.S. cut. But I thought you should know that this is not the show as originally made.

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