Life on Mars: A Pleasant, If Familiar Surprise (cautiously)

No, this post isn’t about the MarsPhoenix Rover, which continues to toil away on the surface of the red planet. It’s about the ABC TV adaptation of Life on Mars, the BAFTA and Emmy-winning BBC One hit which ran from 2006 to 2007.

Life on Mars is a police drama about DCI Sam Tyler (played by John Simm), a detective in the Greater Manchester Police Department, who inexplicably finds himself shunted back in time to 1973 as the result of getting hit by a car. Stuck in the Manchester of the 1970s, Tyler finds that he’s got a life there—he’s a new transfer into the Manchester police department of 1973, working under DCI Gene Hunt, semi-affectionately referred to as ‘the guv’ by his co-workers.

As you can imagine, the culture shock for Sam Tyler is substantial: coming from a politically correct, technologically advanced, forensically sophisticated, and very by-the-book police department in 2008, Sam is faced with the exact opposite in ’73: a cadre of boorish, sexist, racist, thuggish detectives, who work more on hunches and on beating information out of suspects than on empirical procedure and the rule of law. This attitude is personified most directly by Gene Hunt, a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-hitting, and hard-living general, er, hardass. His character is a fantastic foil to Simm’s by-the-numbers, ultra-PC Sam Tyler, and as played by Philip Glenister, was an absolute joy to watch. Being ostensibly about time-travel, the show ended after two seasons (or “series”, as they say in Britain), and while the resolution to the show wasn’t as cut-and-dried as it could have been, it was very satisfying and overall, the show had a successful run.

As a big fan of the original show, I cringed at the prospect of yet another diluted American adaptation of a perfectly awesome British TV show. As much as I enjoy the American version of The Office, for example, I hold a special place in my heart for the original BBC show. Initial reports of an awful American Life on Mars pilot eventually made their way onto the internet, and apparently the powers that be at ABC were listening, because they decided to re-cast and re-shoot the pilot, most notably casting Harvey Keitel in the role of Gene Hunt, the much-underused and über-sexy Lisa Bonet (swoon) as Maya, Sam’s girlfriend in 2008, Michael Imperioli as hothead detective Ray Carling, and Gretchen Moll as Annie, the much beleaguered and sexually harassed sole policewoman in the department. They also changed the setting from Los Angeles to New York, which—East Coast/West Coast rivalry aside—makes much sense, since the New York of the 1970’s is infamous as a burnt-out, crime-infested husk of urban blight, in stark contrast to the gentrified, corporate playground it is today.

I sat down to watch the show with trepidation, prepared to be completely underwhelmed by what I saw as a re-treading of Things I’ve Seen Before, and in a way I was. The first episode of the American Life on Mars, which aired on Thursday night at 10PM EST, is very much a re-make of its British counterpart, down to virtually identical key shots (Sam’s car accident, Gene and Sam leaping over a desk and into action, etc.), identical plot, and very, very similar dialogue (making allowances for accents and colloquialisms, of course). If you’ve seen the British version, you’ve pretty much seen this: just substitute smallish European sports cars for big Detroit steel, ‘cigarette’ for ‘fag’, ‘formaldehyde’ for ‘preserving agent’, and ‘boss’ for ‘guv’, of course. Even the soundtrack features pretty much the same period songs (including, naturally, the David Bowie track that gives the show its name).

That being said, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m a big believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adaptations, and it goes without saying that the vast majority of American viewers haven’t seen the original British version of the show. Introducing the show as a play-by-play retelling of the original makes much sense, since the original was just so damn good. How it tracks along with its source material, or eventually diverges from it, will be interesting to watch. Since the original show lasted for only two seasons, as is the case with many British TV shows, I’m sure that there will be additional plot points and storylines inserted as the season unfolds, in order to lay groundwork for a longer-running, multi-season series, as has been the case with other American adaptations of British shows (again, most notably, The Office, now in its fifth season from an original two-series run in the UK). The developers of the American version have already said as much, hinting at a more convoluted and drawn-out explanation of why Sam has been transported back in time. Instead of the original show’s three theories (“Am I a time traveller, am I insane, or am I in a coma, and this is all in my head?”), apparently Sam will eventually come up with as many as thirteen different possibilities, which he will proceed to discard as the show progresses.

In all, a not entirely unpleasant—if rather familiar—viewing experience. I’m cautiously optimistic about the American version of Life on Mars, and look forward to how this re-telling will unfold. If the show is successful (and it should be, if they stick to the original), it will be interesting to see where it goes once ABC has milked the source material.

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