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"A God-Awful Small Affair": An Advance Look at the "Life on Mars" Series Premiere

Longtime visitors to this site know of my love for the original UK version of Life on Mars, a brilliant and mind-bending journey into the 1970s and the subconscious of one fine detective, Sam Tyler (played in the original by John Simm). It's a brilliant and heartbreaking work of genius, deftly blending together sci-fi, cop drama, and thriller into one shocking package.

I'll admit that my expectations were very low when I saw the original pilot last May that ABC had produced for the US version of Life on Mars, starring Jason O'Mara (Men in Trees) as time-displaced detective Sam Tyler. I described the original pilot--set in Los Angeles--as "misguided" and said that the sunny Los Angeles setting was "very much at odds with the sort of haunting, slow burn atmosphere of the plot." I further said that I was "deeply disappointed" with the entire thing.

ABC was apparently disappointed with Life on Mars as well, as the network commissioned another pilot, hired Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, and Scott Rosenberg as showrunners, recast most of the roles (hiring Harvey Keitel in the process), and moved the action to New York City.

So what did I think of the new premiere episode for Life on Mars ("Out Here in the Fields")? Let's discuss.

For one thing, shifting the location of this story from palm tree-strewn Los Angeles to the grittiness of 1970s Manhattan is a very wise move. More analogous to the original series' Manchester setting, New York City in the 1970s is a much more interesting place--both in terms of visuals and morals--than LA and the juxtaposition with Sam's possible time travel and/or his coma-like state in the present day makes more sense in the grey, grimy streets of the Big Apple than they do among the surf and sand of Los Angeles.

Additionally, the cast is significantly improved in this iteration. While they still don't match the heights that John Simm, Philip Glenister, and Liz White reached in the original series, I think that the additions of Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, and Gretchen Mol elevate the US version through their performances. Keitel brings his own energy and interpretation to the role of Gene Hunt, lending him the aura of aging Italian hoodlum who might be more dangerous than the criminals he chases. It's a different role, granted, than the Gene Hunt that Glenister made so memorable but I am glad to see Keitel put his own spin on the part rather than just channel Glenister's performance as Colm Meaney had done. Imperioli is suitably weaselly as Ray, Hunt's putative second-in-command who feels instantly threatened by Sam's arrival in the department. And Mol is at her most likable as policewoman Annie Norris, who acts as a sympathetic ear to Sam and a potential love interest.

However, I still am not crazy about O'Mara as Sam Tyler. At his heart, Sam is presented as a highly intelligent thinking man's cop and O'Mara doesn't quite pull this off, given the physicality rather than mental agility he brings to the role. However, I fully admit that no one will ever compare to John Simm, so I'll stay quiet on any further comparisons between the two. ABC has been trying for some time now to find an ideal role for O'Mara and Life on Mars' Sam Tyler is definitely the closest they've come to date.

(I will say however that I was impressed by Lisa Bonet's performance as Sam's 2007 colleague/girlfriend Maya Daniels, who is abducted by potential serial killer Colin Raimes shortly before Sam finds himself in 1973. Bonet's performance is gutsy and headstrong and it's a treat to see her again on network television.)

My main complaint with the US version of Life on Mars is that it again stuck too closely to the script for the original with some (very) minor exceptions, such as giving suspect Colin Raimes a twin brother in order to have the police let him go when he presents a video alibi. (Twin brother? Really?) It smacks of desperation and lazy writing, particularly when the original series already provided you with an easy way to let Raimes off the hook at the episode's start and this twin thing just needlessly complicates an already intricate plot.

Jettisoning the original series' storyline with Annie's psychology boyfriend lightens the load a little here but I do miss having some sort of intimate scene with Sam and Annie wherein she has to talk him down off the ledge when he believes killing himself may be the only way to escape 1973. (A downer? You betcha but it also set up a major theme for the two seasons to come.) We don't really see a clear indication of the stakes here for Sam nor how much this experience is really playing with his head.

While it's good that the writers didn't lift the entire UK script, using the same little-boy-lost-in-the-woods vision that Sam experiences when he is hit by a car and finds himself slipping back to 1973 hits little too close for comfort. Hell, it even seems like the actual shots were lifted right out of the original UK series, grainy distortion and all. I can only hope that, in subsequent episodes, the writers attempt to do really their own thing rather than following the UK playbook beat by beat or just omitting things when it suits them. I'm looking for compelling originality here and just getting something that feels rehashed and not as effectively realized as the original.

If you've never seen the original Life on Mars, then this could be a somewhat interesting ride. For the rest of us, who already know just what happens to Sam (and what did happen in his past), it's far less interesting to see it play out here in the US version, which seems oddly bland in comparison and, despite having a larger budget than the BBC original, feels smaller in some respects.

While I acknowledge that networks and studios invest in foreign formats because they work in the first place, I can't help but feel that they'd find success down the line if they stick to the basic premise but throw out the scripts from the original. (Or, hell, air the original series in the first place.) After all, one mission to Mars is likely more than enough for loyal viewers of the original series.

Life on Mars premieres Thursday, October 9th at 10 pm ET/PT on ABC.


The supporting cast is impressive but, like you, I am still not sold on Jason O'Mara in the lead role. I just think there are more interesting choices out there. And now that they have such a talented cast surrounding him, I think he may get lost.
Jon88 said…
If it's Mars you need, I read this morning that AMC is developing Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars."
Jon88 said…
Okay, pinky-swear I posted that before I read the Friday briefing.
Anonymous said…
Nice Bowie reference. :)
Anonymous said…
I enjoyed Life on Mars when I saw it on the BBC. I am looking forward to seeing the american version. Do they really need to follow the story exactly? I was kind of hoping for a few different twists and turns.
Anonymous said…
Wasn't looking forward to this and after reading your review am now really not looking forward to this. I'd rather ABC air the original version than air some second rate US version that won't be as well constructed. And the way that the network is trying to position this as LOST meets NYPD BLUE is just inane.
Thanks, Jace. I am a big fan of the original and I will be interested to see how they compare. Unlike Geekchick above, your review (first I have seen that compares the US and UK versions, as well as the Kelley pilot) makes me more interested to see the retooled remake.
Anonymous said…
I'm pretty excited about the remake! i've been a fan of the BBC version and saw this preview online: Looks awesome

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