Series' premieres worth a look, but they won't quash networks' slump

The Baltimore Sun

Three of fall's most anticipated new

series premiere tonight, and taken together, they offer a near-perfect snapshot of the state of network TV today - for better or worse.

There are talented stars and bits of strong writing in each of the two dramas and one sitcom, but there is little originality or inspiration. Two are knockoffs of BBC and Australian TV series, and the other is a Jerry Bruckheimer assembly-line procedural (Think: Without a Trace).

They are, however, about as good as network TV is going to get in this era of decline, and each has its moments, small as they may be.

ABC's "Life On Mars" Who could not find something to like in a cop drama that features Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli? I did not say they are the stars; I said they're featured.

The star is Jason O'Mara as a modern-day cop who is hit by a car and suddenly finds himself in 1973 New York City tracking a serial killer whose legacy lives on 35 years later.

In addition to Imperioli and Keitel, O'Mara's supporting cast includes Lisa Bonet as his police detective girlfriend circa 2008 and Gretchen Mol as the policewoman in 1973 Manhattan who tries to help the troubled time traveler.

The fast verdict is that compared to the BBC version, Life on Mars is lame. But isn't that the case for virtually every Brit-to-U.S. conversion? I still denounce NBC's The Office as a pale imitation of the original to anyone who hasn't seen the BBC version with Ricky Gervais in the lead.

The remake of Life on Mars is not even the caliber of The Office, but it is worth a look to see Keitel as a hard-nosed police precinct chief and Imperioli as a wise-guy detective running his mouth behind a 1970s walrus mustache.

And is there any actress on network TV who brings as much subtext to a role as Bonet? I swear, she even managed to suggest a complicated psyche and troubled undercurrents to her character on The Cosby Show. I wish there were more of her here.

But don't go looking to Mars for sociological or historical insight. Sadly, the producers and writers have reduced early 1970s American culture to bikers, hippies, headbands, beads and LPs - at least in the pilot, anyway.

And with all that talent, it's a shame. If only there had been a little more depth and edge. (10 p.m., WMAR, Channel 2) ** 1/2

Here's hoping there are better days ahead for the series, but I wouldn't bet on it.

CBS' "Eleventh Hour" A brilliant but quirky man of science works with a cool and determined female FBI agent to solve mysterious crimes. She can't stand him at first, but then seems to warm to his weird ways. I think I saw this formula on Fox's Fringe - and a half-dozen other variations elsewhere.

Rufus Sewell plays the scientist, Dr. Jacob Hood, while Marley Shelton does her best imitation of Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs as FBI Special Agent Rachel Young.

In the pilot, the mystery involves 11-year-old boys dropping dead of heart attacks in a small Georgia town. That makes for an intriguing premise but such a boring resolution in the by-the-book mystery-crime drama from the Hollywood factory of Bruckheimer. (10 p.m., WJZ, Channel 13) **

NBC's "Kath & Kim" Molly Shannon and Selma Blair star as a mother and her self-absorbed adult daughter, respectively, in the remake of a highly successful Australian sitcom. Their lives revolve around the local suburban mall, celebrity gossip, fast food and low-end American television programming.

The 27-year-old daughter (Blair) is married to a dim-witted guy who worships her and works at a big-box store in the mall. Mom (Shannon) is looking for Mr. Right and has found a prospect - also at the mall.

The goal of the pilot is to be outrageous, but it mostly feels tame, tamer and lame. Kath & Kim looks like another remake that lost its nerve in translation. (8:30 p.m., WBAL, Channel 11) **

Late-night guests Actor Mark Wahlberg visits The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Actor Bill Murray appears on the Late Show with David Letterman.

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