Life on Mars US

I’ve just finished watching the aborted US pilot of Life on Mars, based on the hit BBC show about a modern cop who’s hit by a car and wakes up in the 1970s.

Guess what? It wasn’t actually as bad as I expected it to be. But then again, I thought it was going to be ridiculously bad. By which I mean, Ed Wood bad. Based on the knockabout trailer, I thought there would be comedy disco moments and whacky sight gags. Huge loon pants and ludicrously huge afros. I thought it would be an unholy hybrid of “Police Squad” and “That 70s Show”. Thankfully, that’s just the way the trailer was cut.

In fact, this version sticks pretty closely to the original first episode script – with lots of memorable lines and moments still intact. Even some of the shot set-ups are the same. The scene where Sam is run over is nearly identical – down to the bit where the camera cuts to his prone body in the road, his eyes open and blinking.

The violence is still gritty, at times shocking and Gene Hunt still isn’t afraid to throttle a prostitute or kick down a door to get his way.

But, ultimately, it doesn’t really work. On a scale of “one” to “Fitz” – it scores a solid “Oh my God! Why did they bother?”

It seems like the executives at ABC, the network rebooting Life on Mars, agree. Insider buzz says that the first pilot is headed for the dumpster, with recasting, relocation and a change of creative team all due before the series goes live.

Of course, you expect there to be differences. The move from Manchester to Los Angeles makes that inevitable. But its more than a simple transplantation of mis-en-scene – it’s a subtle chipping away at the quirkiness and edge at the core of the original, that leads to a tidal reshaping of the show’s premise. Hang on to your hats; Gene Hunt is no longer the star of Life of Mars.

The US remake invents political correctness a full decade before the term was ever coined, redrawing the departmental hierarchy and the relationship dynamic at the centre of the show. Annie Cartwright starts out as a full detective in this version, Sam Tyler’s de facto partner… and this passes without question. What the huh?

Well, actually, let’s be fair. There’s a token moment of wolf whistling when Sam picks out Annie during a briefing – but none of the endemic sexism of the UK Life on Mars that made it seem so real.

It makes you wonder what they’re saying with this decision. For a snapshot of the real attitudes prevalent in America at the time, take a look at the Dirty Harry movie “The Enforcer” from 1976, where Clint Eastwood’s Callahan is teamed up with a female partner. It’s a crazy idea! Hilarity and right-wing wisecracks ensue. There’s none of that here. It’s all been airbrushed out.

There are many little disappointments like this. The lack of period detail for one. The UK version was so soaked in it, it virtually smells brown – like No. 6 cigarette ends soaked in Double Diamond. The US version dresses up clearly contemporary streets with bits of neon and plastic – giving the impression that everyone’s ready for a 70s themed party rather than actually living in the 70s. And, unforgivably, no one smokes.

The biggest problem though is the cast. None of the US actors fill the roles they’re playing one tenth as well as the UK originals. With the beefing up of Annie Cartwright’s involvement, Gene Hunt’s part is reduced to “craggy boss in the background” – but Colm Meany brings no charisma to the character. He’s bluff enough, but not sexy, edgy or in the least bit cheeky. Curiously, there are none of Hunt’s classic lines either – possibly victim to the PC filleting of the original script. If they were there though, Meany wouldn’t do them justice.

As for Jason O’Mara, the guy playing Sam Tyler, he sounds like he’s reading the script off idiot boards. There’s one scene in particular that makes you realise they’ve fucked it up royally – and it happens in the first five minutes.

It’s still 2007 and Tyler is interrogating a serial killer thought to have murdered two women. Opening the suspects’s diary he reads:

“I am a killer. I killed them. I kill”.

When John Simms read the same lines, they were shot through with sarcasm, twitchy frustration barely contained below the surface. It was a dark, comic moment that deftly set the tone for the next fifteen episodes. When his stateside equivalent tries the same scene he sounds like he’s ordering some kind of morbid take-out.

It’s interesting to watch – because this isn’t a complete abortion. It’s merely an Americanisation. Unfortunately, that means much that was endearing about the original is lost. There’s more money on screen and everyone’s better looking, but that simply serves to make it seem slick where it should be grimy. It’s not true that Americans don’t get irony. They watched Seinfield in their millions for fuck’s sake. We tucked it away at 1.00 in the morning on BBC 2. But that’s exactly what’s missing from Life on Mars US. The only irony evident is that the makers impose 21st century values on their 20th century protagonists – when the whole point of the original was to highlight and comment on the disparities. Der!

There’s a line towards the end, where Annie says to Sam:

“Perhaps you were put here for a reason. Maybe you’re supposed to make a difference”.

And the music swells as she takes Sam’s hand.

In the original, Tyler would have looked at her incredulously, sneered and walked away. Here he juts out his lantern jaw, fixes his eyes on some point in the distance and the credits roll. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

Of course, this is the Life on Mars that could have been – not the series that will be. Rumour has it that when it finally airs, Life on Mars US will be set in New York instead of LA. David E Kelly, the saccharine storyteller behind lightweight legal dramedies like Allie McBeal and Boston Legal has walked off the project. Maybe he was pushed.

The New York Times reported that several key roles will be recast, with Rachel LeFevre’s Annie Cartwright up for the chop. We can only pray that the axe nicks Colm Meany on the jugular as it sails past.

So, there’s still hope for Life on Mars US, especially when reports say that “The understanding is that ABC brass felt the show would be more easily accepted by viewers if it reminded them of ’70s crime films like Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and The French Connection“. Now that’s a cop-in-a-coma-retro-time-traveling show I’d book seats to watch.

More:

Life on Mars review at io9.com

TV and Film

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