by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Life on Mars & r & & r & (ABC, Thursdays, 10pm) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & V land is well acquainted with time travel. You got your Quantum Leap, your Do Over, your That Was Now, your Futurama, your Journeyman, your Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. You got that increasingly inscrutable ancient Japan subplot in Heroes....
The list goes on. And, with three of those eight examples debuting in the last three years and another (Futurama) continuing to churn out straight-to-DVD feature films, public desire for time travel seems at a fever pitch. Maybe that's because we as a nation find ourselves at the end of a long steep slope into any number of existential crises. And time-travel shows cater to our desires for escapism by brokering in second chances and wrongs righted.
Ironically, Life on Mars, the show with the potential to be the best of this thoroughly American bunch, has its roots in Britain (the eponymous BBC series premiered in 2006). So far -- also ironically -- it's completely unconcerned with second chances. Jason O'Mara (looking like a raffish, principled Mel Gibson -- pre-alcohol-induced-anti-Semitism, obviously) plays Detective Sam Tyler. In a panic, upon finding his girlfriend (Lisa Bonet) endangered by a serial killer, Tyler walks into traffic, is run over, and wakes up in 1973.
Far from time-traveling for a purpose, though, Tyler isn't even sure if he's actually time-traveling. Everyone he broaches the subject with thinks he's just crazy. Tipping the scales further toward "crazy" -- or maybe "comatose" -- Tyler hears voices that sound like his friends in 2008 and has visions of lunar rovers. Doctors speak to him through television sets.
Three episodes in, where most shows of this ilk would have settled upon a solve-the-mystery-or-fix-the-past-to-get-home plot trope, Tyler doesn't even know where home is: 1973 or 2008? Sure seems to him like 2008 is the right answer. Everyone in the metaphysically mixed-up early '70s, though, tells him there's no time but the present, whether it's a cute cop (Gretchen Mol) or some random Hare Krishna murmuring about how "Tomorrow is an illusion that hypnotizes the conventional man into a deep, deep sleep."
The chief joy of Life on Mars, then, isn't the catharsis of seeing the future fixed and justice done, but the queasy, god-less feeling that there might not be any great Justice to attain -- and that the future that needs fixing may not even exist.
That, and hearing Harvey Keitel respond to Tyler's hopelessly 2008 assertions like, "His murder is looking more and more like a hate crime," with awesomely un-PC 1973-isms like, "As opposed to an 'I really, really like you' crime?"
My Own Worst Enemy
Weird, a Christian Slater project that takes itself way too seriously... Slater plays a spy who didn't realize until recently that he was a spy (dual-personality thing, you understand). Contrast that with the other NBC Monday shows -- a guy who doesn't want to be a spy and a superhero romp that has begun naming its episodes in Latin -- and this looks more Heroes than Chuck. (NBC, Mondays, 10 pm)
Easy-on-the-eyes Simon Baker plays a rule-flouting investigator with superhuman powers of observation and a faked past as a psychic. Guy's kinda a dick, and we like that. (CBS, Tuesdays, 9 pm)
One of our favorite shows from last season is still good (though not as good as it was) and also, apparently, on the chopping block. Save it. (ABC, Wednesdays, 8 pm)
With 15 years in public broadcasting, this is hardly a revelation, but -- occasional political softball aside -- is Chuck or is he not our most compelling conversationalist? 'I'm Charlie Rose, I'm just having a relaxed chat about the fate of the world, no biggie ..." (PBS, weekdays, 11 pm)