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TV Notebook: "Life on Mars," "Kath & Kim," "The Office"

By admin Published: October 9, 2008

KK

As I said in a previous post, things have been a little hectic lately. And today has proven busier than I expected. So instead of doing separate posts on three shows, I'm bundling them here. Some spoilers involved. I hope to post more tonight.

Starting with "Life on Mars," I am a fan of the British series of the same name, in which a modern police detective finds himself transported back to the 1970s. Whether he is in fact in the '70s, or deep in delusion, is a mystery within the show, but it is even more interesting because of a cultural clash that goes beyond technology into such basic issues as how police should operate and the role of women in society.

And while there's no guarantee that Americanizations of overseas shows can work -- as we will discuss with "Kath & Kim" in a bit -- the premiere of the U.S. "Life on Mars" does a nice job of transferring the concept to New York while still keeping a grip on both the suspense and the issues from the British series. Jason O'Mara does a nice job as the time-transferred cop, Sam Tyler. (And just gloss over those promos claiming that Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli are the stars; that's a network extolling names over content.)

But the show still has some issues to deal with. For one thing, Keitel -- playing a tough old-school cop named Gene Hunt -- is 69 years old, and at times looks even older than that. It's almost as if the show has already planned to jump back to the present day, and show us a 35-years-older Keitel, without bothering to make him look younger in the past. (Then again, considering how weird Craig T. Nelson looks when he's been de-aged for that "Poltergeist"-themed commercial, I'd probably rather see Keitel's wrinkles than some unconvincing combination of makeup and CGI.)

My friend Alan Sepinwall has also worried that Keitel is not a tall man, especially next to O'Mara, where the British series had Philip Glenister as Gene, and he was big enough and brutish enough to seem physically intimidating to John Simm's Sam. It's a fair point, although I think Keitel can convincingly look as if he could take out anybody. Or at least that he could have 30 years ago.

But I'm really on the fence about the show's use of the Twin Towers as a motif, both to establish that Sam has gone back in time and in a closing show that made it seem as if we're going to be hearing more about Sam, the present day, the past and what he might do to try and stop 9/11. There's nothing explicit to suggest that, and any time-shifting show runs into risks when they do that stopping-Lincoln's-assassination of "City on the Edge of Forever" kind of thing. At the same time, though, I would prefer that the second shot of the Twin Towers actually means to be more than an interesting image; and Sam the present-day cop would likely have had friends and colleagues lost in 9/11 -- not to mention that it could be part of a trauma in himself.

But I am probably getting ahead of myself and the show. Suffice it to say that there are some good things in the pilot, and some not so good. (There's one of those "Back to the Future"-ish scenes where Sam confuses a barkeep by ordering a Diet Coke; it would have been more logical, given the time, for the bartender to say, "You mean a Tab?")

"Kath & Kim," starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair as a mother and daughter living under the same roof, is also a transplant, from a hit Australian series, and you will soon pick up a sensibility that marks a lot of Britcoms (and Oz is still part of the Commonwealth, yes?): Outlandish characters and situations, with no joke too unrealistic to try. It is also at various points one of the worst shows to hit TV in some time, and a show that might be redeemable. Indeed, NBC appears to still be trying to figure out what the audience will accept; after sending out tonight's premiere and a second episode, it sent out a third episode to substitute for the second. I have seen all three, and some things are consistent. The humor is way too out there. Selma Blair's character is so obnoxious and crass and awful, it's practically hate at first sight. Indeed, the substituted second episode seems to be a way of placating viewers -- by showing that Blair's behavior is intolerable to a lot of other characters. And I am not at all sure that Shannon, whom I like a lot, is going to be able to save this thing.

If she is, it will be because of a couple of scenes in episodes following the pilot. In those scenes, you get to see her bringing a little more reality to her character -- to make her more than a deluded divorcee with a frightening fashion sense, to give her some ability and recognizable emotion. As it goes along, we also get to see more interaction between Shannon and John Michael Higgins, who plays her boyfriend; Higgins is part of the Christopher Guest stock company, so he knows how to improvise, and he and Shannon play increasingly well with each other.

But I still have problems with "K&K" because it is neither as endearing as a good "My Name Is Earl" or as crazy-but-real as "The Office," so it doesn't seem to fit well in the hammock between those two shows. I may be back for more once the three episodes I've seen have aired, but I have enough other shows on Thursday and other nights filling up the DVR already. So it would have to be really good to get me watch more than once more.

Speaking of NBC Thursdays, "The Office" has a nice little episode tonight that serves as a showcase for Amy Ryan, who is playing Holly the human-resources rep. One of the interesting things about Holly is that she is almost certainly Michael's soul mate, but she is not his ideological twin. And tonight finds Holly conducting an office-ethics seminar in which the difference between her and Michael is emphasized. And there's more funny stuff besides, including another Jim-Dwight duel with a good payoff.

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