I rewatched the first episode of the British Life on Mars [Amazon U.K.], which I hadn’t seen in a couple of months at least, before I tuned into last night’s debut of the American remake, and I’m both sorry and glad that I did. Glad because it reminded me that I’ll always have the British series, which — as I’ve said more than once before — is probably the single greatest television show ever, in the history of TV. And sorry because it only highlighted how embarrassingly poor an imitation this new series is.
The British series is an intriguing mix of subtlety and outrageousness: the more you watch (and it holds up to multiple re-viewings), the more its depth and delicate cleverness unfolds under its brash and in-your-face exterior. And it’s very obvious that the new American series is perfectly happy to dispense with the subtle and stick with the outrageous because, in this near shot-for-shot remake of the first episode of the first episode of the British series, you can see what’s been dispensed with (to make room for commericals, the American episode is about 15 minutes shorter than the British one): it’s everything that was truly fascinating about the British show, how it played with your expectations about the new-old place and time we were stuck into. But that last shot of the first American episode, of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers still standing over NYC, is perfectly emblematic of what’s wrong here: this isn’t a show about buildings or funny clothes or weird hairdos but about people and attitudes and how they aren’t necessarily what we think they’re going to be.
Gone is the fragile and graceful balance between vulnerability and masculinity that John Simm brought to his Sam Tyler, because there’s no time for that when there’s some good running around and shooting to be done. Excising all the quieter moments — you know, like when people are interacting with other people as if they’re real people and not caricatures — is why everything here feels forced and phony. You can practically see the cast and the writers trying to hit predetermined marks. And Jason O’Mara, as this Sam, is the worst. He actually apes some of Simm’s Sam-mannerisms, which is simply inexcusable: Is O’Mara not able to create his own Sam Tyler? And because this version is so desperate to mirror the British one, it’s apparently unwilling to admit that O’Mara’s Sam and Harvey Keitel’s Gene Hunt cannot possibly have the same dynamic as Simm’s Sam and Philip Glenister’s Gene did, no matter how much this show insists it can: Keitel, sadly, looks far too frail and exhausted, and is far too small, physically, to make it work. This version is also trying to imitate the relationship between Sam and Gretchel Mol’s Annie, even though this Annie lacks all the sweetness and pluck of Liz White’s.
Ah, and the writers. There shouldn’t be a script credit here: it should be a translation credit. And even that’s poorly done. A New Yorker would never call a bar a “boozer,” for one, and no one says things like “crazier than a fruitbat at a cranberry convention,” certainly not tough 1970s NYPD officers. Everything that was allowed to percolate under the surface, everything that the British show assumed you were smart enough to pick up on without having it explained to you… that all gets explained to you here, in the most ridiculously obvious dialogue. Perhaps the worst moment: the little kid with enough self-awareness to realize that he’s “afraid of everything” and that’s why he’s attracted to an older man who’s “afraid of nothing.” Though maybe worse is the title card that lets the word Mars appear from the numbers 1973, just in case you didn’t catch on to the fact that Sam Tyler has not actually landed on another planet but that it’s a metaphor. I realize that’s a big word — metaphor — and an even tougher concept for us idiot Americans to understand. But it might have sunk into our thick skulls eventually, had we been given the opportunity.