I usually take the time to monitor at least one broadcast TV show per fall TV season, seeing how it fares in building buzz and audience. In 2006, it was Studio60 (NBC), in 2007, it was Pushing Daisies (ABC) & Bionic Woman (NBC), and this year it'll be Life on Mars (ABC). This NYTimes article notes how David E. Kelly handed over the keys of LoM, which I think was a good move in terms of the show and production costs.
I think this project is really risky--a high-concept period drama (it takes place in 1973 New York City) finding and keeping audience should keep most involved in the project up at nights. The production team is trying to stack the deck. The show is an imported formula from the UK, so the concept might get traction. In addition, they're using starpower and familiarity, with Keitel, Imperioli (The Sopranos), Bonet (of Cosby Show / A Different World fame), & Gretchen Mol ("eye candy"
that can be used as a feminist foil). Like AMC's Mad Men, this period drama can talk about current themes (e.g., gender and sexism) in ways that would be harder for contemporary shows without sounding shrill. Some of the writing needs to fall into better groove to build the characters, as opposed to allowing them to remain 70s caricatures.
I found it visually interesting and gritty, feeling it was drawing upon a 70s NYC that Scorsese captured so well in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, as well as a hint of Luc Besson's NYC (à la Léon). There was the obligatory reference to the 8-track cassette & a shot of the Twin Towers(left), but could it not? I don't recall anyone drinking Tab, though.
Clip of the UK-BBC version
You can watch episodes online here, but you'll have to download an applet.
I think there's a lot of potential here, but the budget must be astronomical. The Nielsen ratings are OK, but it's the best premiering drama thus far for the attractive 18-49 demo(graphic), (3.7 rating/10% in 18-49, and 11.33M total). It beat out the CBS crime drama,
Eleventh Hour (3.2 rating/9% in 18-49 , 11.37M), but both lost to ER which periodically resuscitates itself, keeping itself out of the morgue (3.9 rating/11% in 18-49, 9.41M). Eleventh Hour is another UK format import. The original starred Patrick Stewart, but only 4 episodes of that UK-version were produced...probably because of the £4.5M pricetag.
Producers are trying to tap into the 1970s. The summer replacement, Swingtown (CBS), tried to use racy themes (which prompted the show to protested by some), but the formula just didn't catch on despite that buzz. Funny how advertisers and brand managers who were worried about the protests about Desperate Housewives changed their tune after it became a hit.