About six months ago I saw the first pilot for the US version of the Life on Mars. Based on that, the show looked like a slow-motion train-wreck, uniquely interweaving a bad script, bad acting and bad ideas with little or no understanding of the source material.
Usually, in the capricious world of TV, that would be it. But someone high up wanted this to succeed, and a whole new pilot was commissioned for this launch. But is this second try for Life On Mars an evolutionary step or a diversion to extinction?
I could be wrong, but the only thing that seems to have made it from the original pilot unscathed is Jason O’Mara, the actor who plays Sam. Everyone else is replaced, and without exception they’re better. Harvey Keitel takes Philip Glenister’s part as Gene Hunt, and Gretchen Mol is now 1973 love-interest Annie Norris. Even Jason O’Mara seems better, presumably because he’s now in a show that ‘gets’ the ideas behind the one it’s based on.
But the show’s biggest change is location: from L.A. to the far more interesting New York. I knew this was a much better choice from the outset, as they were able to use the twin towers as a massive visual hint to Sam that he wasn’t in 2008 any longer. But actually the delight of this show is the ethnic texture of 1970s New York, which is almost exactly as I remember it. If they can keep using that, grounding the drama in the memories, then this could be an exceptional series.
While the original pilot diverged significantly from the source, this episode is almost a de facto Americanised rehash of the BBC pilot, with almost every element intact. As such, it’s a great improvement. If you’ve seen the original, you’ll be less excited, but I’d suggest that US audiences will relate to this better.
They also manage to fix almost all the things that were obviously wrong before, such as the omission of Ray and Chris. My only concern is that they’ve still got a slight problem with the realistic sexism and racism of the era, which has obviously got the production team nervous. And, while lit cigarettes are in evidence, it appears that nobody actually smokes them!
But they do manage to get a little American TV cop-lore in here; Frank Cannon appears on TV, but no Theo Kojak sadly. I desperately want to see some Shaft references also, please.
Overall it all looks rather promising. The viewing figures seem to support the idea that Life on Mars could be as big a hit in the US as the BBC version was in the UK.