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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

prepare yourself: the American ‘Life on Mars’ is landing (and so is ‘Eleventh Hour’)

The American Life on Mars debuts tomorrow night at 10pm Eastern on ABC. I’m all stocked up on the liquor I’ll need to get through it. This “sneak preview” makes me cringe:


It’s like a horrible nightmarish mirror image of the British show, kinda like how Tina Fey “imitates” Sarah Palin by simply saying exactly what Sarah Palin says, exactly the way she says it, except the other way around. ABC appears to have decided to find out what would happen if Sarah Palin imitated Tina Fey, and I’ll tell you what it looks like from here: pointless, unfunny, calculated, and charmless.

It makes me want to cry. But I’ll watch anyway, because I want to be proven wrong.

Oh, and as if Life on Mars-U.S. weren’t apparent insult enough, at the exact same time that show it is unspooling on ABC, CBS will be doing the exact same thing with Eleventh Hour, a new American adaptation of the ITV series of the same name. While CBS assures us “it’s a masterpiece,” I think I’ll hold off judgment on that till I can see how it differs, if at all, from the British series, which is, indeed, pretty darn gripping.

Ah, there is one glaringly obvious difference: the American show stars Rufus Sewell, who’s fine, but he’s no Patrick Stewart, who starred in the British original, as I think this makes clear:

I honestly don’t get it: Why don’t the American networks simply air the British shows? The Brits are able to cope, somehow, with American accents — is it really too much to expect that American audiences will be able to cope with British ones?



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  • Drew Ryce

    I also hope for the best but it smells like another “Coupling” debacle.

    There is a major premise problem with Mars USA. The Brit version was interesting because the future Mars was successful in the modern era and oh so different from the cops of 1973. Mars is aghast at their crudity. That works in the UK (I guess) but in the US I sincerely doubt that the modern NYPD is loaded with touchy feely types that would feel so alienated from the previous generation. “You mean I can just pull him over on a hunch and I don’t have to waste time finding a fake probable cause? Cool!”

    To have made a better adaptation they could have made Mars black or, even better, a woman. Much more potential for him/her wishing he was back.

  • The main reason for the US Networks want to remake the British program(me)s, instead of just airing the originals, is simply supply. The US nets require that a program(me) be able to fill the slot from October to May with 20 to 24 episodes.

    In the UK, they’re quite content with doing seasons (or series) consisting of 6 to 13 episodes. The funny thing is, in the 60s they didn’t seem to care as much. ABC used to show The Avengers, CBS ran The Prisoner (as a summer series, minus 1 episode.)

    It is kind of funny that the cable channels over here seem to do well with the British definition of season.

    That being said, the new BBC series Merlin appears to be on NBC’s mid-season list – so maybe there is hope for the old days of UK imports on the big 3 (4 or 5…) Unfortunately, that means even less for your local PBS station which loves to play British program(me)s…

    BTW: I couldn’t watch that scene all the way through. It was just painful. It was like the first episode of the US version of Coupling (which started to get better when it was canceled) in that it was an almost scene for scene remake (but missing the good bits…)

  • MaryAnn

    The US nets require that a program

    That’s not a good enough reason. *Why* do they require that? It’s completely arbitrary, and will result in the American *LoM* getting dragged out way beyond the point at which it should resolve itself (that is, assuming it lasts beyond a few episodes at all).

  • Drew Ryce

    MaryAnn, the real money in TV series is in syndication. The first run will lose or break even (costs rise as the series goes into each successive season). So, every series on prime time network TV is approved only on the hope that it will run at least 44 episodes (a syndication minimum) and hopefully for 7 or 8 seasons.

    The reason for a certain number of episodes is that the best sundication slots require a monday thru friday slot and even better a half hour show that plays twice thereby filling an hour slot 5 days a week.
    A quick current example is Two and a Half Men. In LA, a major market, it plays M-F 7-8PM while still holding it’s own in a weekly prime time network.

    That is just pure gold for everyone involved in the show.

    This is not the case with the secondary channels where the revenue upside is sufficient to make a limited run like Battlestar Galactica a financial success. UK shows like Mars or Coupling are a natural for SF, Lifetime, etc but there simply aren’t enough episodes to fit the econ needs of the US major.

  • blake

    Harvey K looks frail,really frail. The real Gene Hunt would eat him alive(!)

    It’s nice to see Gretchen Moll has work coming in, really enjoyed her as Bettie Page (not in a smutty way).

  • blake

    “I honestly don’t get it: Why don’t the American networks simply air the British shows? The Brits are able to cope, somehow, with American accents — is it really too much to expect that American audiences will be able to cope with British ones?”

    Everyone on my side on the pond asks that. The U.S. takes the few good shows we have and turns them into, well, all saw the above trailer-those that could look.

    Why can’t you re-make our rubbish shows, like Hyperdrive!You couldn’t make that any worse, even if you tried.

  • jakob1978

    Well…the reviews for the first episode of Life on Mars seem pretty good.

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/38677

  • MaryAnn

    I’d really like to know how many of those reviewers have seen the original…

  • Okay, I just saw it. But I admit, I only really saw it because I did Improv with the guy who played the “bad guy”. (And didn’t he kick ass! Woot!)

    Otherwise, I think I would rather watch the British Version.

  • Phil Urich

    I watched it and felt it wasn’t that bad.

    Then I realized that the version I was watching has it all set in L.A., and that all this was overhauled by the network, leaving the current (and airing) version of the U.S. show entirely different. Oops.

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, the real money in TV series is in syndication.

    I know that. But those financial issues only come into play with new productions. The costs would be *much* lower if an American network was merely paying to air an existing series, which they could well do to bring great British series to U.S. audiences. Instead, they do half-assed remakes which are almost guaranteed to lose money — I bet the American *Life on Mars* won’t even air all the episodes that have been produced so far, never mind enduring for five years.

    FYI, my thoughts on the debut are up here.

  • Drew Ryce

    MaryAnn, Coupling had 28 half hour episodes in the UK. Mars had 16 one hours.
    There is flat out no economic upside to putting those shows on network TV. None.

    Yes, the remakes of those 2 shows will lose money but they have the potential to be, hugely, profitable.

    The potential is what drives the selection process.
    The network is always swinging for the fences. Executives that hit singles get fired.

  • MaryAnn

    There is flat out no economic upside to putting those shows on network TV. None.

    That’s not true. There is no possibility, perhaps, of making an obscene fortune off those shows. But it’s simply wrong to say that they wouldn’t turn a profit, if perhaps only a small one. For all the shit that crashes and burns, there’s no reason not to take a smaller risk for a smaller return, except flat-out greed.

  • Drew Ryce

    MaryAnn, Your premise, that a series (purchased from the UK) is less expensive than an original series and will therefore turn a profit, is both logical and true for cable channels but untrue for network TV.
    First, as to expense, all the UK shows have escalator clauses built into their contracts. When a show is picked up in the US pay bonuses are triggered that can make the purchase not that much cheaper than a new show. The escalaters are graded by market size and it is therefore a lot cheaper for a cable show to buy the license than it is for a major.

    Second, since you’ve given up after market income by going to the limited UK series run, the only income for the show is current income from advertising. This income is directly linked to ratings. Although the good UK, and Canadian for that matter, shows have been on cable for years. None have ever attracted an audience that could begin to compare to what a show would need on a network to last beyond the first episode.

    I’m not saying that it isn’t possible for
    “Coupling” say to have attracted an audience. What I am saying is that you haven’t eliminated the risk element by buying the UK series. If the UK series doesn’t attract a large enough audience and is quickly canceled, then you have to eat the entire run. Because, instead of ordering 4 or 6 episodes of an ‘original’, you had to purchase the entire run of 28 (16 if “Life on Mars”).

    Put these factors together and creating a new series wins hands down every time. The risk is similar while the potential reward is enormous. Steptoe and Son couldn’t possibly have been the earner that Sanford and Son proved to be.

    Candidly, the ‘smart’ economic move for a network is to eschew series altogether and go to really cheap and disposable reality shows.

    But, is this so bad? Coupling and Mars, et al all got their run on their logical venue. We all got to see them in their original glory. Maybe, one of these days, one of these remakes will have it’s own value. otherwise, we just change the channel.

  • Watching primetime TV in the age of Netflix and DVD rental shops? How quaint.

    But then I still get a lot of entertainment from an oddly obscure low-tech item some of you good folk might know as–what’s the American term?–oh, yes. A book…

  • It’s nice to see Gretchen Moll has work coming in, really enjoyed her as Bettie Page (not in a smutty way).
    –Blake

    Yes, she did a very good job in that film. And I don’t just say that because of the nude scenes.

    After all, Boogie Nights had a similar amount of nudity and I hated that flick.

  • Drew Ryce

    I agree.
    There is a likable and vulnerable quality in Gretchen Moll that is absent in most other actresses with her sort of looks.

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, Your premise, that a series (purchased from the UK) is less expensive than an original series and will therefore turn a profit, is both logical and true for cable channels but untrue for network TV.

    That’s probably true. But that does not eliminate the question: Why not leave it to the cable nets to pick up British series and run them, and leave the broadcast nets to make original shows?

    Watching primetime TV in the age of Netflix and DVD rental shops? How quaint.

    Well, some things are only available, at the moment, on primetime TV.

    But then I still get a lot of entertainment from an oddly obscure low-tech item some of you good folk might know as–what’s the American term?–oh, yes. A book…

    So do I. What does that have to do with what we’re discussing here?

  • drewryce

    “But that does not eliminate the question: Why not leave it to the cable nets to pick up British series and run them, and leave the broadcast nets to make original shows?”

    I am with you fully on the ‘should be’. Yes, the networks ‘should be’ original and innovative, but why aren’t they?
    The answer to that is that they don’t need to be. Of late, the cable nets are also the place where you find original interesting and innovative new series. The Wire, Sopranos, Rome, Dexter, etc are tried out on the premium cables where the income is from the subscription money and the series can get a full season run without the need to get an immediate audience ala the advertiser run networks.

    Again, the risk-reward ratio mandates the investment. The premium cable that scores with an original series makes an ungodly sum as it’s syndication cash out is greater than that for a network show.

    Personally, I like the current system. The networks hack out an occasional show that I like (House) while the creative flow from the premiums is far greater than the networks ever had.

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