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Life on Mars launches (but can it take off?)

Coppers Sam Tyler and Annie Norris hook up in ye olde 1973.

Premiering: Thursday, Oct. 9th at 9:01 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jason O'Mara, Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Murphy
Produced by: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Scott Rosenberg

Earth to ABC: Life on Mars doesn't look sustainable. Even so, Thursday's premiere is by no means unwatchable.

American TV's latest British import (the acclaimed original ran for a tidy eight episodes) gets launched on ABC after some much-publicized creative differences and casting changes. That's rarely a good sign, but it's not always a death warrant either. Touched By An Angel had its entire pilot scrapped and a new creative team brought in before CBS finally shrugged and put it in play. A nine-season run ensued.

Mars may be fortunate to last nine episodes, even in a less than daunting time slot populated by NBC's already long-faded ER in its final season and CBS' Eleventh Hour in its first. Magical, mysterious time-travel, with Mars the latest practitioner, is starting to seem as played out as Idol judge Randy Jackson.

We begin, of course, in the present. New York detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) and his partner/lover Maya Daniels (former Cosby kid Lisa Bonet in a recurring role) are heading toward an alleged killer's lair while squabbling over commitment issues.

Once on the scene, Sam's quickly in hot pursuit of the suspect. Catch him if you can, which of course he does. While they grapple, a little black kid shouts, "Kill the pig, 'Freak Show'." What possibly can be the point of throwing in a line like that?! ABC can and should excise it from the "rough cut" version of Mars made available for review.

Police questioning of the really guilty looking Colin Raimes (Michael Bertolini) hits a dead end when a casino video shows him shooting craps at the time of the murder. He's freed, with Maya still tailing him before the cops make an eye-opening discovery. Meanwhile, Maya appears to be the victim of foul play before a guilt-ridden Sam is hit by a car.

He awakens not on Mars, but in NYC, circa 1973.

"I need my cell," Sam tells an officious cop.

"You need to sell what?" he retorts.

It's tough to get sold on what follows, even though one of befuddled Sam's new acquaintances is instantly a very winning character. She's brainy Police Women's Bureau recruit Annie Norris, played with considerable appeal by Gretchen Mol. She quickly embraces Sam platonically, although we know where this is going if Mars lasts long enough to get there.

Alas, the show's two marquee cast additions are one-note at best in Thursday's premiere. Hard-boiled Harvey Keitel (Means Streets, etc.) finally succumbing to his first TV series gig, plays super-gruff, big boss lieutenant Gene Hunt. No one expects Keitel to take on anything resembling a genteel role. But it'd be nice to see him as something more than a door-kicking, suspect-punching old-schooler to whom nuance is having an Irish coffee.

Also dropping in and out is Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos fame. Sporting a thick mustache and thicker, longish hair, his detective Ray Carling is a veritable Pez dispenser of off-color wisecracks -- and next to nothing more.

"You look like you've seen a ghost, and he was ballin' your mother," he says by way of greeting the super-befuddled Sam, who becomes a member of the squad because almost everyone apparently knows him although he knows no one. He even has an apartment in the Village, to which Annie escorts him. Cannon's playing on the TV.

Sam of course yearns to return to the present -- and Maya. And he's convinced that seeds sown in 1973 hold the key to protecting her in the future. He hears voices, but are they real? And how about that weird, black-and-white scientist dude who suddenly pops up on the tube and speaks spookily to him before dissolving to a test pattern. Yeah, why not throw in a little Lost while we're at it?

The sinking feeling is that we'll never learn much of anything during Sam's entrapment in 1973. Maybe he'll periodically "escape," only to return against his will. In Thursday's opener, though, he's left stuck 35 years removed from 2008, haunted by Maya imploring him to "Come home. Come back home."

Mars' opener at least had enough pull to drag me like a balky mule to next week's episode. Its stitching seems too threadbare, and it's likely going nowhere in particular. Still, watching Sam and Annie interact and evolve seems worth the price of submission. Even if maybe she's from Venus.

Grade: B-minus