Life on Mars US, an interesting curio

Posted: February 4, 2014 in Archive posts, Journalism, Reviews

The second US attempt at an adaptation of Life on Mars. From Death Ray 16. I’ve a review of the end of the series somewhere, which I’ll doubtless post. Eventually.

Writers: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Scott Rosenberg.

Starring: Jason O’Mara, Harvey Keitel, Jonathan Murphy, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Moll

 US translation of hit BBC mystery show has second stab at success.

Life on Mars US is a straight enough port of the UK’s beloved show – there’s no danger of anyone asking incredulously if this is, indeed, Life on Mars. Initially at least, the plot follows that of the UK version closely. However, we know that this will change. The most interesting thing about the series will be to see how.

First off, this is the second version of a US Life on Mars. The initial pilot was a subtler affair to that broadcast, New York-located rejig, preserving much of the Beeb’s original’s clever ambiguity. Version two takes great pains to making sure the audience knows what is going on. There’s a lingering shot on Sam Tyler’s iPod, for example, showing us the title of the song Life on Mars as David Bowie belts it out. This, and Sam’s opening monologue, aim to let audiences know exactly why the show is called what it is. Tweaks to dialogue make the concept further explicit in version two. Many of the changes are those that make it an easier sell; bigger name actors, a shorter present-day segment among them. There’s more humour in the second version, though nowhere near the amount found in the UK series, and overall the series whiffs a little of American earnestness. The first handled the police procedural better, seeming tauter and more engaging, the second is more concerned with Sam’s dilemma. There is, in the main, a lot less drinking than in the original in both.

Maybe it’s just because we have seen it all before, but neither Life of Mars US is as engaging as the UK version, though of course it’s the ongoing one that we’re more interested in. Keitel, at 69, is too old for Gene Hunt, he lacks the fire and anger of Phillip Glennister’s original reading, although he’s a better fit than Colm Meaney. Similarly, Jason O’ Mara’s Sam is more caught up in his own predicament, whereas John Simm’s Sam exhibited a greater sense of outrage at the way his new colleagues conducted police business. The chemistry between the two leads is, however, strong. A benefit to the show being a remake is that the roles of Chris Skelton and Ray Carling are closer to what they are in the UK’s Ashes to Ashes than in the initial run of LoM. They’re less comedic, and play a larger part in the show from the off. Michael Imperioli’s Ray Carling in particular presents a formidable foil to Tyler, sometimes friendly, at other times utterly hostile for being passed over for promotion in favour of Sam. Imperioli, massively ‘tached and with a leonine mane of hair, has awesome screen presence, his Ray a million miles from the cuddly, occasionally vicious meathead we know and love from the BBC’s series.

This different weighting of characters carries on right across the board. Though the focus is still on Sam and Gene, this is more of an ensemble show than its forebear, Annie has more time, and there’s a new character, Sam’s hippy neighbour.

Will Life on Mars be a successful as it has been in the UK? It’s hard to tell. On the whole, it is less of a cartoon than the UK version, but is correspondingly less entertaining. The concept is perhaps not robust enough to sustain 22 episodes over several seasons. How long audiences can hang on without some kind of definitive answer is hard to guess. If the simplified nature of the second version of the show is anything to go by, ABC probably think “not long”. As yet, we’ve seen none of the “political issue of the week” that the original exhibited, either. We’ll give it time, but, with a  three million viewer drop-off between week one and two, will the audience?

  1. Redleg says:

    The US Life on Mars is probably my all-time favorite show. It probably had a lot to do with where I was in my life when it came on the air. I had just left the army, which had been my whole adult life up to that point, and I could really sympathize with Sam feeling like a fish out of water. The civilian world was my 1973.

    I know Brits will consider me a Philistine for saying this, but I didn’t enjoy the UK version at all. I’m kind of an Anglophile, but I could hardly understand a word of the Manchester accent. I never had any issues understanding Red Dwarf or Doctor Who, but LOM was incomprehensible to me.

    Anyway, thanks for this, Guy. I hope you do post your other reviews, too.

    • guyhaley says:

      At some point I’ll put my review of the final episodes on there too.

      Can’t understand Northerners eh? You’d struggle with me then! Luckily, the written word is (mostly) without dialect. 😉

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