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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

as predicted, the American ‘Life on Mars’ made me cry

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.

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • stryker1121

    If nothing else this review makes me want to Netflix the original series, which I have never seen. Guess I’ll have no shows until Lost comes back in January/Feb.

  • Katie

    Tragically Netflix doesn’t have the original Life on Mars. Which sucks because I really want to see it. That said, I have absolutely no interest in the American version.

  • Patrick

    I read somewhere the original BBC Life On Mars could not be released in the US due to music rights issues. I don’t know if that is accurate, but there certainly are a lot of great songs in the episodes that are vital to the plots. I bought a region-free DVD player just so I could watch Life On Mars, and it was worth it. It was only the beginning, though. A local video rental store has a nice collection of import DVD’s, and I have now watched Ashes To Ashes and Edge of Darkness and currently I am in the second season of The Lakes. All great stuff that is not available in the US.

  • everything MaryAnn said here. i’ve never like O’Mara as an actor, and his inexcusable aping of John Simm’s delicate and multi-layered Sam is just the biggest sin in this horror show.

    my father was a NYC cop in the exact era of this show and i hung around the police station where he worked a good deal. there is *nothing* authentic in the way these cops interact with each other, or the public they deal with. the phoney police “jargon” is so grating and horrible i wanted to plug up my ears.

    the show’s setting and props are also way out of wack with the era. the British show wasn’t afraid to show the heavy fug of cigarette smoke that hung in the air over every bar, restaurant — and indeed — police station and office. the american one shows a one scene with people smoking — but not much smoke and after that first scene at the police station, not much smoking either.

    all in all, completely the horror show i thought it would be — and maybe even worse than i thought it would be.

  • blake

    We all new it would be rubbish but c’mon, isn’t this a bit over the top.

    I want to see it now,just for novelty value. It can’t that bad. Maybe it has some so-bad-it’s-good quality to it, y’know, like Robocop 3

    Is there any way I can see it over here

    “here” being a distant and far away land.

  • MaryAnn

    It can’t that bad.

    Sure it can.

    Is there any way I can see it over here

    Probably not, unless it eventually gets released on DVD.

  • I couldn’t get through ten minutes of the first US pilot… we’ll see about this new one. I’m going to try it tonight.

  • Barb

    I didn’t even take a peek at the show and won’t be doing so in the near future. Sorry, but the original LOM is pure classic to me (I have the UK DVD set too) and I just have no interest in seeing a copycat of the show done just to shift it to the States (and where else but the usual New York background) and leave out the accents.

  • JoshDM

    I remember dismissing the American version of “The Office”, as it was a word-for-word remake of the British original.

    And then they hit their own stride, and I started watching (and reverse-watching) in earnest.

  • blake

    Do the actors in sound like they are from New York or L.A. ?

  • Patti H

    You’re right–the dialogue was painful and ridiculous, along with some of the accents. Keitel gave me the creeps, and would any man of his apparent age in the 70s have hair that long? Whereas the British original gave an obvious but natural look to 1973, this one was stagey and overdone.

    I snickered over “Hyde–upstate” thinking they must have meant Hyde Park, which is only at the north end of Dutchess County. Still, just about anywhere in New York state north of the immediate suburbs would be a whole other world compared to NYC.

  • MaryAnn

    I remember dismissing the American version of “The Office”, as it was a word-for-word remake of the British original.

    It’s not just that it’s a word-for-word remake, it’s that it’s a *bad* word-for-word remake.

  • blake

    So what are you saying, MaryAnn?
    It’s like the Psycho remake?

  • blake

    Over here I just heard the the New York Times described the U.S. Life On Mars as”exhilarataing”-this true?

  • blake

    I’ve found a site that let’s me watch the U.S. version.
    OH, MAN!!!
    You are right, COMPLETELY RIGHT.The bit with the twin towers was sooo cheesy.Jason O’Mara is without charm, there are more charasmatic diseases.

    Patty H was right when she said it was “stagey and overdone”.

  • John

    “I snickered over “Hyde–upstate” thinking they must have meant Hyde Park, which is only at the north end of Dutchess County. Still, just about anywhere in New York state north of the immediate suburbs would be a whole other world compared to NYC.”

    I live in Westchester, which is about 45 minutes north of New York City. We’re considered ‘upstate’. I don’t even know what City residents consider Rochester or Essex County to be.

  • MaryAnn

    Everything north of the Bronx border is considered upstate. :-> Still, even city dwellers wouldn’t abbreviate Hyde Park to Hyde.

    It’s kinda bizarre that for all the things the show did attempt to translate into New York-ese or American-ese, it didn’t bother to change “Hyde” to something that would make sense. It’s just another example of how half-assed this *LoM* is.

  • Mr.Evil

    but hell, Harvey Keitel? it’s almost like a low budget James Bond knock-off with… Sean Connery or Roger Moore in main role. I mean, they have actor who, back in the 90s, played the baddest of bad cops…

    it must be really hard to screw up show with Harvey Keitel as a tough guy, so I figure they really tried hard! and damn, how did they convinced him to play in that? I know it is getting harder and harder to find a work for experienced actor nowadays, but geez…

    oh, and Imperioli definitely deserves better. he was every bit as good Gandolfini in Sopranos

  • blake

    Y’know according to the IMDB our views are wrong, the show is in fact terrific.Brit’s (and American fans ) should just stop moaning.They really need to start screening people for intelligence on that site.

  • I really liked the twin towers bit. I haven’t seen the original UK pilot since the day after it first aired, so going into this one I was a little less able to compare and contrast. And, maybe because of that, I actually kind of liked this new take on the show… at least insofar as I’m willing to give it my attention for a few more weeks. The original was pitch-perfect in almost every way, so this one has big shoes to fill, but I think I’m willing to give it a chance, if only to see whether they are up to the task.

    It’s doubtful, but I wasn’t depressed after watching this, so we’ll see.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m gonna keep watching too, if only to see how bad this *LoM* can get.

  • Patti H

    Oh, John. I grew up in Northern Westchester, which is really just suburbia. Now I live in the genuine “upstate,” though we call it Central New York. For me, upstate always meant anywhere beyond Albany. (Or the Catskills and points west.)

    MaryAnn, I know what you mean, but it’s a hoot to consider Yonkers as “upstate.” And seriously, they couldn’t say that Sam was a transfer from, say Albany, or Buffalo? Heck, Poughkeepsie would have been funny enough!

    I haven’t seen the NY Times review, but I know that Newsday loved it.

  • MaryAnn

    it’s a hoot to consider Yonkers as “upstate.”

    I agree. But it’s how a lot of New Yorkers think. Then again, if you’re one of those people who never goes above 125th Street, Yonkers *is* upstate!

  • mark

    Spot on, MAJ. I loved the original version, while living in the UK and was fascinated/worried about the US copy. Jason O’Mara is terrible as Sam -wooden, too-cavalier about everything, and sounding like a bad Mel Gibson imitation. Although I had high hopes for Harvey Keitel as Gene -he’s WAY too old…seeing his old-man flabby arms in the scene coming out of the pool in the second episode was creepy. Phillip Glenister could snap him like a twig. Michael Imperioli is the only good thing about the show. Even the use of music has been dissapointing. The odd attention to some details (the “Redrum” referrences)even when useless, the elimination of important charector development, and American hypersensitivity to political correctness (the smoking thing that someone commented on, etc) make watching this version of Life on Mars like a weird, bad, acid trip…although I wonder what people who never saw the UK version think?

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