Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a semi-weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST (in a special two-part interview): "Life on Mars" Executive Producer Josh Appelbaum
Click here for part one of the interview.
Brian Ford Sullivan: Can you talk specifically about the differences between the shows?
Josh Appelbaum: ...The big thing is, in terms of the difference - and again some of our cases are the same, some of our cases are the same as theirs. We've taken the whole thing with Maya, the girlfriend left behind who in ours is played by Lisa Bonet who's fucking awesome - it's so great to see her back on TV, it's so funny how people, of all the people in this cast, Bonet has gotten us as much pop as anybody, like People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, talk shows, people are like, "Denise Huxtable is back on TV!" But anyway, the big difference is in the mythology. In the BBC version he was always in coma and you pretty much knew that from [the beginning] and that was sort of, the audience could be playing around with different theories, [but] it was relatively clear that that's what it was. They were doing 16 episodes, that's what it was. Our mythology is completely different with the kind blessing of the BBC people. They encouraged us to change the mythology. It's great for 16 episodes, it's not so great for 116 episodes - that the whole thing is a dream sequence.
Our mythology is deep and thick and in fact, in the second episode something happens to him that is so fucking shocking, something that they didn't do in the BBC version, something that so throws him. He witnesses something in his universe that is so like, "What the fuck?" that it almost throws anything he could have possibly thought was going on into question. That, then cut to the next morning and Gretchen [Annie] walks in and he's been at this dry erase board all night and he has listed like 12 things - or 13 things rather - and she's like, "What are you doing?" And he's like, "I've been staying up all night thinking, 'What the fuck is going on? Either I've traveled through time, I've gone insane, I'm in a coma, there's some multidimensional rift here,'" and he runs through the options of what's [going on]. As opposed to saying - "It could be anything?" - he lays it right out, he's the smartest guy in the room... we'll actually address each one. In the first 13, we'll address each one of those 13 possibilities - I'm dead, I'm in purgatory, etc. And then the 13th one is the question mark and that's the one he hasn't thought of yet, that's the one that he fears most of all!
But again, we really play with it. I know everybody says this - I've said it before and not meant it - but we do know where it's going. Because there was another incarnation of this, literally the first thing we did was say, "Should it be a coma?" And by the time we finally came around to the fact it shouldn't be, it had been discussed so much we actually came up with that end point of where it's all going to go and so it's pretty fucking - if we do our job right - it will be really shattering and fucking awesome. [Laughs.] And the one thing I'm sure of, even in the pilot, there's like actual clues built into the pilot both through numerology but also images and things. Pay attention to license plates in 2008. Pay attention to addresses, all that stuff. Hopefully in 2015 when we finale, it will all play towards the answers to what's going on with Sam Tyler.
BFS: Speaking of [Jeff] Pinker, the "Fringe" guys have said they see their end point as modular - so if they get canned after 13, 22, whatever the number, then they can quickly make that last episode reveal all the show's secrets. Is the same true for "Life on Mars?"
JA: That's true, we could definitely. If they God forbid told us that we were only doing 13... let me put it this way, this is the way I always put it - we could resolve the mythology but we couldn't give a satisfying wrap up, meaning I know what the last image of what "Life on Mars" is, I know what the last scene is, what the last six minutes would be. I could cut to that at any time. Could I earn getting there? No, but I can certainly show you in a pinch, throw that on there at any point. It would give the answer.
BFS: I know it's the cliche question nowadays - but how important is the mythology to enjoying the show? Does the procedural aspect of the show play just as significant a part?
JA: Well the thing that we have, that something like "Lost" doesn't is it's a cop show, it's a '70s cop show. On "Lost" it's about survival and getting off the island, but it really just ties around to figuring out what is the island. Our guy's got a case to solve every week. It's probably more similar to "Fringe" in that respect, like she's solving a case and then the mythology is sort of dancing around the case. But also we, unlike "Fringe," Olivia, Walter, those characters, there's a sense that everybody's involved in the conspiracy. In ours it's only Sam who's wondering, "What the fuck am I doing here?" Harvey's character is looking for a pastrami sandwich and a glass of rye. Imperoli's... thinking [Sam]'s a fucking snap job.
It's not like the whole world is invested in this mythology. It's Sam in his private moments trying to lead like a little side thing... I'm happy so far about how we haven't gotten bogged down by the mythology. I think the audience is going to be asking the questions Sam is asking. Even for me, I love shit with mythology but - and sometimes when I hear standalone I think it's instantly going to be boring, it's not going to be the juicy stuff. The great thing about this particular show - again you know from the BBC, you're going to get a down and dirty cop show, sort of this anti-procedural show in many ways, then you're getting this cool, trippy, what the fuck goes on stuff, and then you're getting that it's wildly funny at times. There's shit like Harvey Keitel and Jason O'Mara getting into a slap fight with each other, whacking the shit out of each other running through Central Park in their tidy whiteys chasing a suspect as Paul McCartney's "Wings" plays. If I could say, "Oh, it's a procedural we don't need to worry about the mythology as much," that wouldn't feel like enough. But the fact that you're also getting this great fucking humor to it, some romance, the stuff with him and Gretchen is really sweet, the fact that he's disconnected from his love, trapped in time, it's a wonderful bouillabaisse.
BFS: Will you still have the Test Card Girl?
JA: It's funny we don't because the Test Card Girl is a real thing on the BBC. Because I asked them about that, I wanted to do it because she's so creepy. And then they said to us, in the nicest possible way, it would be kind of weird because that's a real thing from the BBC. So what we did was, we have a whole other thing that I will let surprise you. In the second episode, actually you know what, I'll show it to you. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Josh goes on to discuss a very big secret about the show - unrelated to the little girl or what follows - so we're going to omit the bulk his comments until the episode airs.] So the thing about the little girl, what we did in place of her - because we love the whole children's television show thing... we created our own. You know what I wanted to do? He was the guy, that painter, although he didn't come on in '73 - Bob [Ross]. Having that guy, who's now not with us, but having him and CG like he's painting a beautiful little cloud here and us CG him painting Lisa Bonet's face or something like that, like trippy shit like that. It wasn't on in 1973 though! [Laughs.]
So what we did do was we created Cowboy Dan. And Cowboy Dan is our children's cowboy show. And we got this great actor to play it, it's a simple backdrop wall and there's a little saloon and a cactus. And he's like [in cowboy accent], "Hello kids, it's Cowboy Dan! And here's my horse Victor!" And it's all very bare bones. So we shot 12 Cowboy Dan episodes to be shown at various times in the series and he'll kind of become his own presence. Literally some of them are him just saying like normal TV show shit and then all of a sudden he becomes freaked out and paranoid and says stuff like, "Kids, they're lying to you! They never went up to the moon! We brought the moon down to us! Don't believe them when they told ya - the moon is coming down as we speak!" And then he'll restart the show all jolly again but he'll stop after a second and say, "Sam, Sam Tyler. Tell me when you came back from 2008, did you bring with ya some of them Tupac Shakur CDs?" Just the most bizarre shit.
BFS: So when you found out Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli closed, did that change what you initially thought their characters - or the show even - were going to be?
JA: I would be lying if I didn't say... Hunt was always a major part of the show in the BBC version. I'd be lying if I didn't say when I got Michael Imperioli, Ray who was not an important part of the original - at least in the first season in that he was just more kind of a tough [guy] - Michael, no actor I've ever worked with can take any line and make it work... he's incredible, he's so fucking good. And so yeah we absolutely beefed up the Ray role for Michael. There was always this sense that he and Sam didn't like each other in the British version, but here it's like this is his real nemesis within the squad room. They're part of the same squad but they can't fucking stand each other. And we've also added some cool guest characters. Do you watch "Oz?" Lee Tergesen is on the show. And Dean Winters. Do you watch "The Wire?" Clarke Peters, Lester Freamon, plays [Sam's] lieutenant in 2008... we're getting all those great East Coast guys. Everybody on the show is like one of my favorite actors on the planet. It's really cool.
BFS: At the end of the day, what do you hope people get out of the show? Is there a particular experience you're going for with "Life on Mars" you can't get anywhere else?
JA: I think it is truly, like the BBC version, if you give it a try it is a truly, genuinely unique - there's nothing like it on television to experience. It isn't even a riff on something you can find somewhere else. It's a whole new take on the cop show, plus having this mythological element, plus being a really poignant period piece, plus being a romance, plus being wildly, outrageously funny. Let me put it this way - trust the good people of the United Kingdom, this thing is really special. And also, I will say this - if you want to watch a good cop show every week, you'll get that in a way that's unlike any other cop show on TV, because again they didn't have this crime scene technology - it's all about going to back to gut and instinct. If you miss sort of those old school, more character driven cop pieces you'll get that. Plus you'll get more genres than you can fit in a hat!