Life on Mars

10Oct08

Wednesday night, I surprised my girlfriend with a present and was good to her all evening, and this turned out to be a good idea, because I made up for that by ignoring her for work and television last night. But it couldn’t be helped: Last night was the debut of the American version of Life on Mars

If you haven’t heard of it, the title may mislead you: It’s not science fiction. Well, actually it is, but it’s about time travel rather than colonization of the Red Planet. The premise: New York police detective Sam Tyler is knocked unconscious in 2008 and wakes up in 1973, where he uneasily incorporates his modern law-enforcement techniques into the more rough-and-tumble approach to police work practiced by his new colleagues, led by chief detective Gene Hunt. Over time, this odd couple will develop respect for each other as Gene learns that forensic crime-solving isn’t just for homosexuals and Sam grudgingly admits that beating up witnesses gets results.

So far, so good. Harvey Keitel isn’t quite a match for Philip Glenister’s original Gene from the UK version; Glenister brought such an primal intensity to the role that Gene Hunt wasn’t a man so much as an elemental force of nature — pure, unbridled Seventies masculinity, archetypal Man with a capital M. Keitel just looks a little old and tired for the job, but if he goes into full Bad Lieutenant mode, he might do well.

Jason O’Mara, for his part, seems to be playing his Sam as less cerebral than John Simm did, which will probably somewhat undermine the brain vs. brawn dichotomy between Sam and Gene. Instead, O’Mara seems to be channeling the crazed, twitchy Mel Gibson of the first Lethal Weapon, which is effective in a scene where a wild-eyed Sam taunts and dares a murderer to shoot him (which he believes will send him back to 2008) and another where the haunted Sam seethes with emotion as he talks to and contemplates cold-bloodedly murdering a young boy who will become a serial killer in the future.

Other than that, Liz White was cuter and more vulnerable as Annie than the more conventionally beautiful Gretchen Mol. (I always found it weird, though, that Sam was allowed to two-time his present-day girlfriend — Archie Panjabi in the original, Lisa Bonet in the remake — with a girl from the past.) And Christopher from The Sopranos is in it, which I hope to use to get my girlfriend to watch it. 

Something that stuck out was the dialogue shortly after Sam awakens in 1973, which seemed lifted straight out of Back to the Future, with Sam wondering where his Jeep was and a beat cop asking why he’d have a military vehicle. Of course, Jeeps were commercially available on at least a limited basis since shortly after WWII and the company had been making a concerted effort to crack the mass market since at least 1965, so this line is a bit of an anachronism. Maybe the beat cop was also a time traveller who’d recently arrived from 35 years in the past; I’d kind of like to see a companion program showing how Sgt. O’Van Winkle from 1938 copes with the futuristic dystopia of 1973. 

The Back to the Future homage continues shortly after with Sam walking into a bar and commenting that he’s lost his cell — as in cellular phone — and the bartender asking him what he’s trying to sell. I half-expected Sam to then try unsuccessfully to order a Tab and a Pepsi Free. (Looking back 23 years, the jokes about now-obsolete sodas did not age well, though they’re part of what makes Back to the Future seem like a sort of double period piece now, delivering two doses of nostalgia for the price of one.)

Another notable moment: Sam first realizes he’s in the past when he sees the intact World Trade Center towers. It seems we’ve now come far enough from 9/11 that a scene like this is fair game instead of crass and exploitative, but it still packs an emotional wallop. It certainly beats having him grab a newspaper and having him stare dumbfoundedly at the date.

It looks like the soundtrack is going to be great too. Of course there’s the David Bowie song that gives the series its name, which Sam is listening to on an iPod (somewhat improbably) while pursuing a killer when he’s struck by a car in 2008, and which is playing in his new/old muscle car (his Jeep’s replacement) on an 8-track when he awakes in 1973. The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is also used prominently; in fact, it furnishes the title of the premiere episode, “Out Here in the Fields”. And The Sweet’s “Little Willy” soundtracks a thrilling foot chase as Sam pursues a killer named, appropriately, Willy. Incidentally, one of the original’s indelible scenes prominently features The Sweet’s “Block Buster!” as Sam and Gene invade a previously untouchable crime lord’s sanctuary and publicly perp-walk him out in slow motion. The music was one of the great things about the original series, and I’m looking forward to more. 

So far, I’m optimistic. It’s appropriate that Life on Mars airs after The Office (albeit on a different network). Both are UK imports whose premiere episodes are essentially straight remakes of the original series’ pilots. But the US Office eventually found its own path and (though some would disagree, I’m adamant on this point) grew to far exceed the original. The US Life on Mars will likewise need to evolve beyond its source material. Luckily, the UK Life on Mars lasted only 16 episodes over two series, by design, while the US version already has a standard 22-episode order for its first season, so it has the room for growth it needs.



13 Responses to “Life on Mars

  1. I think the American Office is far superior to the UK version. It’s actually entertaining, for a start. This I’m not so sure about.

  2. Just to clarify, I think the UK Life on Mars is better as of right now. I’m just hoping the US version pulls an Office rather than a Coupling.

  3. 3 Question Mark

    I didn’t care for it, frankly. Too much extravagant camera work, music seemed jammed in rather than just complementary, Gretchen Mol still can’t act and O’Mara didn’t seem much better.

    Now, I never saw the British series so I have no point of reference, but overall I’m not too impressed by the fact that it seems pretty clear already that he’s in a coma and hallucinating all of this. Wasn’t it more of a question in the UK series if Sam was hallucinating or if he was really time-traveling?

    Also, it’s really weird seeing another time-jumper show with a hero named Sam.

  4. 4 Mully

    You people rate the US The Office as superior to the UK The Office? What is this, the twilight zone?

  5. Has anyone in the past twenty years noticed how bad an actor Harvey Keitel really is?

    As for the brains vs brawn dichotomy, you have to understand that most Americans don’t appreciate tact and wit the way the English do. We like our battles to be brawn vs brawn, and if the good guy is marginally more intelligent than whoever stands against him, then that’s fine too. Because of that I think, for this show at least, that the English version is far superior.

    I still prefer the US version of The Office, though.

  6. Question Mark: I did prefer the original UK camerawork in the scene where he gets knocked out. This one felt too much like a montage.

    Mully: The UK Office isn’t bad by any means. It’s great. The US version is just simply better. It would be a crime if it weren’t by this point.

    Schroederist: I’m going to wait and see on this one. The US version does at least have time to really stretch its legs out and spend time exploring the concept. But I’d like it a lot better if I thought Harvey Keitel could beat Jason O’Mara’s ass. He’ll just have to really ramp up the sleazy pre-Serpico attitude toward police work (while simultaneously making it look like it wasn’t a totally bad thing).

  7. 7 Mully

    Hmm, the funny bit is, the US Office came pretty close to bombing when it started here (New Zealand). Ended up being in a late night time slot on a minor station. It’s only just getting popular now (I don’t know what season we are on though – we just had the one where the boss (Michael? Fuck I don’t know) goes on holiday to Jamaica and e-mails the entire office that topless photo (of Jen? Fuck knows again).

    Anyhoo, when I first watched it, I was not impressed. I guess that’s the difference between what Europeans (my parents are English) and Americans find funny. I think the UK version was going for more of a mockumentary feel (i.e. no-one already famous was in the UK one) I find if I don’t directly compare the US one to the English version, and just enjoy it for what it is, it’s much better than I first thought.

    How many seasons of the US one have they made now? Must be a few.

  8. 8 Peter Lynn

    They’re just starting the fifth season. Of course, I should point out that while Steve Carell might be a Frat Packer now, he was barely known to the public as a Daily Show correspondent when the US Office started, and no one else in the cast was known in the slightest.

  9. 9 Mully

    Interesting – by the time it had started here, Steve Carrel was known as “The 40 year old virgin guy” (not, admittedly, a title to be proud of).

  10. 10 Teaflax

    Yes, lines like the Jeep one are painful and I dropped “Life on Mars” when Sopranos dude said “1968 called and wants its dashiki back”.

    The “X called and wants its Y back” is a 90s phrase. I’d say even late 90s. I can’t imagine you could fins an example of it anywhere before 1992.

    Awful, awful writing. The entire gay marine episode that it was in was awash with forced, expositionary dialogue, which is in such stark contrast to a good show like Sons of Anarchy which doesn’t tell you much of anything, and what it does tell it dares you to pay attention to get.

  11. 11 Peter Lynn

    Hmm. Good point. That line is very Chander Bing-esque, isn’t it?

  12. 12 Teaflax

    Could it BE any more…

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

  13. Tab is still produced, though not as widely distributed as it used to be.


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