'Life on Mars' Did Some Time-Traveling of Its Own

Detective series went through many incarnations before finding a home on TV.

ByABC News
October 7, 2008, 6:05 PM

Oct. 8, 2008 — -- There's a second life for "Life on Mars," the BBC drama about a modern-day detective who, after an accident, abruptly finds himself on the beat in 1973.

ABC took a quick shine to the show when it premiered in 2006 and began developing an American version with producer David E. Kelley ("Boston Legal"), who already had acquired rights to it.

The series, premiering Thursday (10 p.m. ET/PT), had plenty of hiccups along the way. Dublin-born Jason O'Mara stars as Sam Tyler, who confronts an atmosphere of rule-breaking, corruption and polyester shirts as he solves cases while pursuing the mystery of how he got there and how he can get "home."

But the network was unhappy with the original pilot, shot last year with Kelley at the helm, and wanted a cheekier tone that was more in keeping with the British original. In May, Kelley was ushered off the show and given 13 final episodes of "Legal."

Apart from O'Mara, the entire cast was fired and replaced with a new team, led by Harvey Keitel as Lt. Gene Hunt and Michael Imperioli and Gretchen Mol as fellow cops. New producers from canceled drama "October Road" were brought in, and the show shifted from Los Angeles to New York.

"My performance was more intense" in the original version, O'Mara says. "Even though his mind is blown by what happened to him, there have to be moments where it's sort of fun."

ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson calls the retooled series "an incredibly compelling translation" and says new producers "embraced what was wonderful about that series (and) added further depth, insight and vision" along with levity.

O'Mara is a fan of the BBC series, which aired just 16 episodes in 2006 and 2007. His mother grew up in Manchester, where the original version was set, and he says he spent much time there as a kid.

"The dynamics between characters are slightly different," he says. "We didn't want to just shot-for-shot carbon-copy their show, even though we borrow a lot, especially in the pilot."