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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

‘Life on Mars’: still sucking hard


A shot of modern Manhattan bereft of the World Trade Center, with “an island never cries” on the soundtrack? Are they kidding? This is the American Life on Mars’ idea of… what? Irony? Pathos? Look, I still get weepy when I happen across some logo for a dry cleaners or a deli or garbage-hauling company that features the skyline with those iconic twin towers still at one end — and there’s still a lot of them to be seen around New York — so it’s not like I’m not right in the path, like a deer mesmerized by oncoming headlights, of whatever the hell LoM-US is trying to say here. And I just don’t get it. I don’t think the show does, either.

proper Gene and Sam

I also love — and by “love” I mean, of course, hate — how LoM-US thinks it’s being more aggressively feminist than LoM-UK, and in the process it’s just being obnoxious, like — heh — some throwback to the 70s who doesn’t understand the difference between chivalry and condescension. Why are they making American Annie so hard and cold and unsympathetic? Is it just so they can give American Sam that hippie-dippy girlfriend who talks to sunbeams? Why did this episode make the Heather Matarazzo June so complicit in her own undoing? That completely undercuts Sam’s remorse for his part in accidentally orchestrating June’s shooting. Oh, wait: Sam doesn’t feel any remorse. When he’s mopping up June’s blood off the street with his own jacket, he’s angry with Gene, not with himself, like proper Manchester Sam was. This Sam is always right, never questions himself, never wonders whether there might be other ways of getting things done — and other ways of being right — beyond the ones that he is tied to. (Oh, and speaking of feminism, sexually charged work environments, and postmodern commentaries thereon, having a bad guy say, “I got it bad for that Goldie Hawn” is not an appropriate replacement for Gene’s roaring about wanting to shag Britt Ekland.)

not-proper Gene and Sam

Did I say Sam never questions himself? I did: I don’t think Sam writing down all the possibilities for how he could be seemingly stuck in 1973 counts as “questioning himself.” Proper Manchester Sam had three options, as he saw it: he was in a coma and dreaming, he was mad (that is, Brit for “crazy”), or he really was back in time. I dread to imagine how long the producers of LoM-US think they can drag this out, with all those options on the table. (Heaven/hell/purgatory? They’re going to the Lost island already? Maybe we can have the polar bear or the black-smoke monster off Sam soon and put us all out of our misery.) A question mark represents the unknown? Are they kidding? Did that really need to be explained?

It’s only the second episode, and I feel like I’m watching a bad stage production by amateur players of a really great play. I feel like I’m watching kids try to do Hamlet. That fight in the hospital room? The British show managed to make Gene and Sam look like macho idiots, but in a loving way, like this hostility was merely an expression of the much deeper emotions of complicated men who were frustrated and confused but already growing to respect each other, and maybe even like each other. But these two guys just looked like macho idiots, full stop.

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  • I have some problems with this Americanized version as well, but I actually think it works better than The Office did early on, for whatever that’s worth. In the stat world, we call it ‘small sample size,’ but I still hold hope that once it finds it’s footing and eventually moves a little further away from the original, it could be something special.

    Still concerned with how they sustain the series to the length of a typical successful US series, but then again, that was one of the worries about The Office as well.

  • Patti H

    You’re a braver soul than I am, MaryAnn. After viewing ABC’s glowing, OTT promotional ad last night, I decided I was done with this version.

  • Ide Cyan

    Harvey Keitel during the chase scene at the start of the episode looked positively geriatric. Less Gene Genie pissed off at having to run, more Gene Grandpa nearly killed by that running.

  • Jurgan

    A thought occurs to me. I haven’t seen either version of this show. Based on the collected ravings on this site, I’ve decided to ignore the American one and wait for a chance to see the British on DVD (and by “a chance,” I mean “time and money”). Had I not read the posts here, I probably wouldn’t have known it was a remake, and I might have given it a shot. Under those circumstances, I wonder what I would have thought of it. Would it have seemed horrible? Or, having nothing to compare it to, would I have thought it a fairly good show? Of course, no one can answer for me, but try to imagine yourself having never seen the British version: would you have liked this one?

    Note: this is not a demand for you to be “unbiased” in your review. Of course your biased by what you thought of the original, and there’s nothing wrong with saying it’s a let down. It’s just a little thought experiment.

  • there’s also something really electric in proper-gene and proper-sam’s relationship that totally doesn’t happen with the pseudo-gene and pseudo-sam in the US one. in the proper-manchester LOM, gene is a bit of a primitive, it’s true, but he’s also got a shrewed and knowing side about human nature, whereas sam is sensitive and aware almost to being ineffectual at times. they balance each other out, sometimes by fighting and sometimes they just “click” and their thoughts and actions run along the same track. but it’s always enthralling.

    also, proper-gene knows how to relate to real life women, despite his caveman talk says in the squad room. it can be seen from the first episode where questioning the woman to job her memory, he goes around her talk sideways, distracting her from getting flustered by feeding her tea and biscuits… using his practical version of sweet talk.

    there’s something really genuine and magnetic about proper-gene which harvey keitel doesn’t have, in spades.

  • Paul Hayes

    Do we know when they’re going to do an episode from one of their own stories? Are they going to do all eight British series one episodes, and then start on their own, or will it be sooner?

  • Barb

    That’s the one thing I don’t like when they transition a show to the States. They basically use the same storylines as the original (I remember this with Touching Evil which was also a pale shadow of the excellent Robson Green series). Just show the bloody original here then (give me lovely accents and the UK scenery). I’m bored of the seeing the same cities used all the time and I won’t even give this LOM a chance.

  • MaryAnn

    try to imagine yourself having never seen the British version: would you have liked this one?

    That’s really hard to say. I will say, though, that what makes the original show so endearing is the characters, not the concept… or at least not the concept on its own. There is truly something astonishingly engaging about John Simm, not just in *LoM* but in everything I’ve seen him in so far. Jason O’Mara simply does not have that. I probably would have tuned into this American *LoM* for the time-travel thing but lost interest immediately because I just don’t like any of the characters because the actors playing them are so unappealing.

    Do we know when they’re going to do an episode from one of their own stories?

    No clue. I would guess, though, that they’ll run through the existing stories from the British version before venturing too far off on their own. Though the hippie chick is a new addition, so they’ll probably start weaving her into stories right away. That seems like an attempt to expand the roster of characters to give them more options when the time comes.

  • Paul Hayes

    Is this “hippie chick” their version of the Test Card girl?

  • MaryAnn

    Oh please god no.

  • Oh dear. I’ve seen both and I like both for totally different reasons. I find the original Life on Mars had more wry humour, but I’m more familiar with the early 70’s of this side of the Atlantic. (And I loved it when they used Mott the Hoople as part of the soundtrack of the second episode. Gawd, I was crazy about that band…)

    Where I’m watching in Canada, I can see the new version at 10 pm, then follow it up with the original at 11pm on BBCCanada. It’s an interesting comparison. I have no complaints about the acting in either series, and so far, I rather prefer the American Annie, though I found the Manchester Annie beguiling. And the hippie-dippie neighbour? I knew so many girls like her. I understand the ratings for the American version are dipping, and I’m rather sorry!

  • MaryAnn

    I rather prefer the American Annie

    Just curious: Why?

  • She seems a bit more assertive and articulate, so far.

  • MaryAnn

    And how appropriate do you think that is for the period, for a woman trying to make her way in such a male-dominated environment as the NYPD?

  • Well, Mary Ann, all I can tell you is that I was a young woman in the seventies. I do remember what it was like. I knew both kinds of women, and liked both kinds of women, counted them as among my friends. As a character in this drama, I rather prefer the American Annie. That’s all. (And I think both Annies are perfectly appropriate for the time.)

  • Proper Gene’s character was in part defined by his foul language, spewing anger and derogatory terms in fast-paced, saliva-spitting derision and motivation. The corner of our lips rise, ever-so slightly. Harvey Keitel’s character’s one-liners are simple vulgar commentary on the action. American television has always been tamer than British, where profanity and nudity are not so strictly controlled. There’s no way American LoM can approach the realism of the British, being a water-ed down, dumbed-down effort. We are denied proper Gene’s brilliant depiction of an unleashed boor.

    As for Sam, John Simm is certainly a more endearing Sam. He is self-effacing, with his perpetually hanging head, and just plain darling. He suggests the use of modern techniques in a gentle way, and is sometimes taken seriously. His facial expressions suggest all his emotions: confusion, anger, hope…I guess I “have it for him” more than a trifle. American Sam only uses his forehead crease to depict any conflict. And his angrily pleading with the electronic hints don’t approach Sam’s intellectual take on the use of the clues.

    I agree that Sam’s conviction of three possible reasons that he is in 1973 are simple, to the point, and believable. Our American Sam is narcissistic, thinking every episode revolves around his need to fix something in order to get home.

    God, I’m disappointed. I’m recording these for my husband to see, but I’ve already recorded the partially captioned British one, because he doesn’t speak British. Even I need explanation of Gene’s fast and profane delivery, and a chance to catch the British slang.

    American television will never allow a proper Gene, And Jason O’Mara is simply a woefully miscast Sam. OK, Harvey Keitel, too, as he doesn’t do the rapidly physical chases, or simply running around from one lead to another.

    And the Flower Child is a sad attempt on Americanizing the show.

    God, I hate it, but still record every episode.

  • MaryAnn

    American television has always been tamer than British, where profanity and nudity are not so strictly controlled.

    And somehow American TV tends to feel cheaper and more vulgar anyway, even with less nudity and less profanity.

    Could be that most actual grownups aren’t offended by nonexploitive nudity and profanity that reflects the way actual grownups talk.

  • Absolutely. I can watch a fabulous scene and not even realize until afterward that it used, uh, those words. It’s integral to the action.

    And you’re right…the Americanized Life on Mars, as I said, resorts to cheap vulgar comments instead of the more idiomatic and explosive natural language.

    Takes all the spunk out of the characters.

    Do you think, that, even though there was no such thing as political correctness in 1973, it’s a strong negative influence on these scripts?

  • MaryAnn

    Of course it is! The story may be set in 1973, but it’s being written in 2008.

  • btw, I stupidly had my DVR set to save only 5 episodes of the proper show, thereby missing the LOM marathon which aired shortly before the US version debuted. I’ve only been able to find Region 2 DVDs, except for bootlegs (beware) on eBay. Have they made Region 1? I wrote the BBC and haven’t heard back yet. Do we need to rally the troops?

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