Life On Mars (US) DVD review

The US version of Life On Mars arrives on DVD in the UK. And Alex has just sat through it all...

Sam Tyler is involved in an accident in 2008 and wakes in 1973 to find a very different world. Will he cope with his new boss Lieutenant Gene Hunt? Will the sympathetic Annie believe his fantastic future tales? Can he convince his sexist, racist, bully boy diluvian colleagues that policewomen are just as good as men? Sounds like a tall order. How did he get here and will he ever get ‘home’?

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. This is a remarkably faithful American remake of trailblazing British show Life On Mars.

There is a history of British remakes across the pond. Steptoe And Son became Sandford And Son and Till Death Us Do Part became All In The Family, for instance. Far fewer shows have made the trip the other way. Notably Who’s The Boss? became The Upper Hand and notoriously The Golden Girls became Brighton Belles… Sometimes the title remained unchanged. Dear John USA being a prime example.

Apart from updating the contemporary date to 2008 and an occasional nod to the fact that this is America, very few details have changed. Rather surprisingly perhaps, there are still references to Hyde. Life On Mars US has much in common with the American remake of The Office, which saw Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant act as executive producers. Here, Matthew Graham ensures his brainchild survives the transatlantic trip intact. Unlike The Office, even the character names (mostly) remain the same.

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The UK version of Life On Mars ran for 16 episodes over two seasons. Those sixteen episodes have been expanded and Matthew Graham has added a whole extra episode. The first few shows remain very faithful, the majority, though, are a little more freeform. For instance, Annie’s promotion only occurs in the final episode and the end of the series really has to be seen to be believed! The finale is very well done and a more satisfying conclusion than in the UK version… if you really can suspend your disbelief, although Red Dwarf fans may find some of it familiar…

Whether the Americans will adapt Ashes To Ashes as a follow up remains to be seen, but with that show soon to notch up three series, there will certainly be plenty of material, more especially because American audiences are used to series lasting 22 to 24 episodes.

The casting is interesting. Sam Tyler is played by the likeable Jason O’Mara and he gives a very good performance, balancing the inherent paranoia with an affable charm. To be fair, following an actor of the calibre of John Simm can’t have been easy, but then to most of the American audience this is their first encounter with Sam Tyler.

Intriguingly, the most obvious casting is, arguably, the weakest thing about the whole show. I refer, of course, to the unashamed ‘stunt casting’ of Harvey Keitel as Gene Hunt. It’s as if someone asked “who could play Gene Hunt… if money were no object?” and has run with it. A Hollywood A-lister in an (above average) cop show feels slightly odd and undermines the concept somewhat. Clearly, the series was proposed to the US networks on the strength of Keitel’s involvement. Either that or Harvey Keitel was a casting request to get the series made. Suffice to say he gets a “…and Harvey Keitel” credit.

Whilst more than adequate in the role, in all truth, Keitel is not a patch on Philip Glenister. Keitel plays Lieutenant Gene Hunt as a laconic, seen-it-all American cop of the old school. Unfortunately, he doesn’t possess the wit and in-yer-face ‘harsh but fair’ charisma that Glenister brings to DCI Gene Hunt. Perhaps because Glenister nailed the part so convincingly in the first place, it’s very difficult to accept anyone else in the role.

Of the supporting cast, Annie (Gretchen Mol) is now blonde and called Annie Norris (rather than Cartwright), but  remains an intelligent and sympathetic character. Ray (Michael Imperioli) has a more outgoing personality and is friendlier than in the UK version. It must be said, his (obviously false) droopy moustache makes him seem like a refugee from the 70s scenes in the film Anchorman. Chris (Jonathan Murphy) remains a naive but willing assistant to Sam Tyler, while at the same time being corrupted by Ray and Gene’s more draconian tactics.

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Life On Mars US moves along at a decent pace, as one would expect from the more filmic attitudes of American television. British television possesses a more theatrical approach, which can seem stagey by comparison. In recent years UK TV has shaken off this image as most series are now filmed using just one camera.

Life On Mars (US) employs various techniques to evoke the period setting. TV screens feature Richard Nixon’s speech on Watergate, which would come back to haunt him the following year. The cars and street scenes are reminiscent of early 70s cop shows such as Columbo and Cannon, however, this is a ‘70s cop show’ with more than a little debt to the direction and grammar of Hill Street Blues. There are little in-jokes too: Sam Tyler mentions a bar called Glenisters (clearly named after Brit Gene Hunt actor Philip Glenister) and Sam’s mother believes him to be Detective Skywalker, first name Luke!


A short collection of out-takes and ten deleted scenes make up a rather paltry special features section. An enlightening documentary or commentary would undoubtedly have lifted this otherwise very good package.

Life On Mars US is an intriguing all-American take on a phenomenally successful UK series. For the most part, it works because it’s so faithful to the original British model. However, there are just enough differences (especially the final scene!) to give it its own identity. The idea of moving Sam’s home town of Hyde to an eerie deserted seaside locale, reminiscent of Twin Peaks, is inspired and opens up the series in a fresh direction. The acting is of a high standard and in general the production values remain true to the period.

An interesting slant on a British favourite, Life On Mars US can join that illustrious pantheon of shows which are a success on both sides of the Atlantic.

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4 stars

Life On Mars US is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.


4 out of 5