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Pilot Inspektor: ABC's "Life on Mars"

ABC had very little to announce for next season at this year's upfronts; most of its pilots have yet to have been shot and won't film a single frame until later this summer. And the few things that ABC did end up ordering were either picked up from another network (Scrubs) or had been shot last year (Life on Mars).

What's my point? I finally sat down last night to watch the pilot for Life on Mars with bated breath. After all, longtime readers know how bloody much I love the UK original series of Life on Mars--starring John Simm, Liz White, and Philip Glenister--and I had pretty low expectations for this David E. Kelley-created US remake, which keeps the basic plot intact (detective Sam Tyler gets hit by a car whilst investigating a serial killer and wakes up in 1972... or does he?), along with much of the dialogue, shot compositions, and graphics. (Kelley, for his part, won't be involved with the series; ABC has hired Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg, the executive producers/creators of the recently axed October Road, to come on board as showrunners.)

I wasn't sure how the action would really transport from 1970s Manchester with its Northern accents, creepy Test Card girl, and satirical humor intact (not to mention a rocking soundtrack from David Bowie et al). It's an odd juxtaposition with Los Angeles, which lacks the same essential temperament as Manchester and was undergoing a very different transition of its own in the 1970s. The essential look of the show, with its sunshine and palm trees, seems very much at odds with the sort of haunting, slow burn atmosphere of the plot. The fact that Sam Tyler is quite possibly laying in a coma in a present day hospital seems to lend itself better to the wet, damp, grey atmosphere of Northern England than sunny Southern California.

Jason O'Mara (Men in Trees) plays Sam Tyler who, like his predecessor, is on the hunt for a serial killer in the present day when his colleague/girlfriend Maya (BSG: Razor's Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen) is kidnapped by the madman; distraught, Sam pulls over onto the side of the road (or in this case a median on a completely deserted road by the Disney Concert Hall) and, while listening to Bowie's "Life on Mars" in unexpectedly hit by a car. While the shots are almost perfectly lifted from the original, that version shocked and disturbed me when Sam was struck out of nowhere; here, it's laughably bad and telegraphed a mile away. O'Mara isn't bad as Sam Tyler but he lacks the intensity and rapid-fire thought of Simm's interpretation; he's more brawn than brains here.

Sam wakes up in 1972 Los Angeles and wanders the streets in a dazed, bewildered state before ending up at the police station where he (A) discovers that he is still a detective and has been transferred (from where?) to this precinct and (B) meets the adorable Annie (What About Brian's Rachelle Lefevre) and gruff boss Gene Hunt (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Colm Meaney).

While Lefevre is absolutely charming as sweet-as-pie Annie (though doesn't quite match the kewpie doll innocence of the original's Liz White), Meaney is a pale imitation of Glenister's Gene Hunt; while Hunt is an amoral psychopath in his own right, he manages to still be sympathetic and fascinating at the same time, no small testament to the acting prowess of Philip Glenister. Meaney plays Hunt as an aggressive thug but with little of the charisma that has made the character so memorable on not one but two series (including Life on Mars spinoff Ashes to Ashes). When Hunt slams his fist into Sam's stomach as a way of introducing himself it just didn't ring as true, especially as O'Mara towers over Meaney physically and isn't as slight or wiry as Simm was in the role.

Overall, I was deeply disappointed by Life on Mars' pilot episode. The original had such spark, creativity, and vision--from the overarching plot to the set design, costumes, and visual look of every shot--while the US version seems fairly... generic. It's dully colored puddle of an episode that looks to have been shot on a soundstage and has none of the nail-biting tension, subtle satire (of British cop series like The Sweeney, among other things), or the psychological drama of the brilliant original.

No, Life on Mars seems more like mass-produced, microwavable fare; it's boxed macaroni and cheese: loaded with calories and fat but no soul.

Life on Mars launches this fall on Thursday nights at 10 pm on ABC.


Melissa said…
Sad to hear but no where near surprising. Life on Mars is so quintesentially British, there's no way to bring it here without losing a ton of it's uniqueness. If Kelly can't make it work, then there is just no hope for the new show runners.

I suspect Kath and Kim will suffer the same export fate.
Anonymous said…
Too bad. I generally like Jason O'Mara and I'm huge fan of Stephanie Chavez-Jacobsen even though it seemed she just had a bit part. Reading your review, I couldn't tell-- is the new Life on Mars objectively just a bad show or does it just fall short of the greatness of the original? I mean, if you'd never seen the original, what would you think of this new one?
Anonymous said…
I like Jason O'Mara but think that he is totally wrong for this role. He has more of a beefy, frat boy persona while the original Sam Tyler, John Simm, is lean and weasel-like (in a good way!) and introspective which works much better for the role and further illustrates the contrast between him and Gene Hunt.

All of the characters in the original were so perfectly cast that I don't believe anyone could improve upon those roles. I think they would have been better off just showing the original in the US. I think it could have been a big success.
cydoniax said…
I have never cared for Colm Meaney. Didn't like him in ST:TNG or ST: DS9. I was not happy when he was cast as Hunt. Maybe it's because I like Philip Glenister so much (in so many different roles) but I am definitely biased.

I will give the show a chance just to see what they did. I wonder if people who haven't seen the original would like it any better?
TxGowan said…
I saw the trailer for the pilot online and it was just absolutely horrible. Especially the announcer voiceover. I couldn't tell if they were deliberately over-the-top or they genuinely thought i'd get me to watch the show.

I agree that O'Mara (who I generally like) is miscast, but that's American television for you. After seeing Meaney play some other tough guy roles, I thought he'd be fine, but just from the little bit I saw in the trailer, it wasn't good.

The only good thing I can hope will come of this is that the show will sink so fast that we'll get Region 1 DVDs of the original faster.
Anonymous said…
Seems like the U.S. has screwed up trying to copy Coupling, Cracker, Waking the Dead and others. I had read of a planned Hollywood version of Prime Suspect without her Greatness. Life would be so nice if we just got the uncensored, original British versions. Your description of the brilliant casting of Life on Mars is spot on. A copy could only be worse.

Has Ashes been on BBCA?
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…
I am guilty of hating the US version before I watch it, but so what!
Anonymous said…
BBCA has said they have no plans to release LoM on region 1 DVD-I just hacked a cheap DVD player and bought it from AmazonUk. BBCA has also not announced whether it will show Ashes to Ashes.
Anonymous said…
Very sad, that the ABC's remake on Life on Mars, is not like the orignal. One thing is that they should Air the BBC Life on Mars in the US, and compare the two. and see the real differences.
Anonymous said…
I know its unfair to truly judge the US version against the UK version, because the latter established the characters, but the US pilot was not good at all, imo. My wife and I watched the pilot and I must say we couldn’t think of one thing about the show (character, dialogue, sets, etc.) that we liked over or equal to the UK version.

The use of green screen is ridiculous. All the 70s cop shows were done on real streets. So should Life on Mars if they actually want to capture that time.

The dialogue should much be much harder. I mean these are tough, grown men working in an almost female free zone. How do they think mean like this would talk? Which leads to my next issue.

All the characters seemed watered down and unrealistic. Do they actually want me to believe that a woman that young, thin, wearing that much makeup, would have been a detective in 1972- and have been accepted by her peers?!

And Colm as Gene. I like Colm. I think he’s a very good actor but his portrayal doesn’t fit the bill. Gene Hunt was the head of his department in 1972 which means he must be in his mid-40s to mid-50s at that time; this puts his birth in th late 20s, early 30s. I think Gene should be hard, cold, bitter and tough having gone through that time as well as the issues of the 60s.

Gene would have been trained, if there was training outside of military experience, in a time when women were not respected, or welcome, on the job and blacks and minorities even less.

If the US version wants to match the quality of the UK version, one thing must be remembered- Gene is the star of the show.

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