Preview: Life on Mars (US)

It's dead, Sam

In the US: Thursdays, 10pm, ABC. No start date yet

Ah, Life on Mars. Everyone’s favourite BBC show about time-travelling cops who are really stuck in a coma (there’s more than one, you know). Harking back to bygone days of politically incorrect cops shouting "Gov!" and beating up crims before going to the pub for a swift pint or seven, it gave us lovable rogue Gene Hunt to grudgingly admire while we simultaneously gloried in nostalgia and looked at the recent past with just a touch of smug superiority.

But, oh the wailing and gnashing of teeth when it was heard that US network ABC was going to remake it. "Bloody yanks. They’re just not going to get it," screamed a thousand armchair and pub xenophobes around the land. And when that trailer came out, many a person could see their point.

Even ABC saw their point after giving the pilot a look-over. At the moment, it’s busy relocating the whole thing to New York from Los Angeles and is recasting.

So what, you might ask, is the point of reviewing this, the original pilot? Well, I think it’s instructional. Firstly, given the script itself probably won’t change that much, it’s interesting to see what changes have been made and will probably make it through to the series proper. Secondly, it’s interesting to see whether the trailer made the pilot look better or worse than it actually is. And thirdly, is Colm Meaney as Gene Hunt anywhere near as good as Philip Glenister, assuming he doesn’t get recast?

In the midst of a difficult serial killer investigation, LAPD Detective Sam Tyler goes against his better judgment and allows his girlfriend and fellow detective, Maya Robertson, to search a suspect’s home by herself. When things take a terrible turn and Maya disappears, Sam is devastated. Despondent and in shock, he wanders aimlessly around town and is hit by a car. He wakes up to discover he’s in 1972 — without a scratch on him — and still in the LAPD.

Welcomed by his new colleagues as a "transfer," Sam finds himself thrust into a world where cops routinely rough-up suspects to get answers and political correctness is years in the future. While being ordered around by his Archie Bunker-like, take-no-prisoners boss, Gene Hunt, Sam initially refuses to accept his situation. Unsure whether he is hallucinating, in a coma, or if he has actually gone back in time, he ultimately theorizes that if he is able to solve the case for Hunt, perhaps he will be transported back to 2008. He clings to this as his only hope of saving Maya.

But detective work in 1972 is very different from detective work in 2008. Sam is forced to operate in a world without forensic evidence and even more challenging, adjust to the cultural and social differences of a 1972 police precinct. His modern, methodical manner brings him into constant conflict with Hunt and his team, who naturally operates in a more old-fashioned way. They’re not scared of throwing punches or using ethically-questionable tactics to get results. Sam does find one ally in the precinct’s lone female detective, Annie Cartwright. Annie seems to be the only person who believes in Sam’s ability to solve crimes, despite his insistence that he is from the future. Through the course of his investigation, Sam eventually comes to realize there just may be a connection between the case he’s investigating in 1972 and events in the present day.

The series is produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television and ABC Studios. Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg are the executive producers.

Is it any good?
Well, obviously it’s not as good as the original. For starters, the original runs at an hour per episode, while the pilot clocks in at 50 minutes – the show itself will probably be down to 40 minutes per episode. So if the plots stay the same, a lot of the detail is going to go MIA.

But it’s not as bad as we all feared. It’s lost much of the fun and the colour that made the original so enjoyable. Nevertheless, it’s reasonably serviceable.

The main change, apart from the relocation to Los Angeles and the new cast, is Sam, who is far more the traditional hero and the centre of the plot. And it’s the same plot as before: it’s pretty much a line by line, shot by shot translation into American of the original British pilot episode.

But there’s been some juggling. Now Sam gets all the good lines. Gene Hunt is pretty much a shadow of his former self, a bully figure without charm or wit.

Since it’s America, looking back at the past is a bad thing and the future is always better, so there’s no admission that anything could have been done better in 1972 than now. Gene’s better community policing skills compared with Sam’s cool, clinical approach have all been shunted over to Sam. Now passing grannies talk about Sam’s kind face and trust him with information; they won’t give Gene and his garibaldis a look-in.

Now the original show wasn’t perfect. There were a few odd things. Gene Hunt may be used to street-fighting but could he really have beaten a modern cop in a fight, given the vastly improved self-defence training? Would Annie really know about psychological profiling techniques from a late-60s psychology degree?

US Life on Mars patches these problems up, albeit to make Sam look better, unfortunately to the detriment of the other characters. While new Rachelle LeFevre is a better actress in some ways than Liz White, Annie is now pretty anaemic in comparison to White’s version: she’s quite passive and gooey-eyed with little spirit. And Meaney has so little to work with, he can’t really demonstrate one way or the other whether he’s any good. He’s just there.

Sam is also different. Jason O’Mara is no John Simm, however you look at him and his character, and there’s little subtlety or variety to his performance. He is pretty much a square-jawed hero doing square-jawed heroic things.

Other tinkering has been going on. Chris and Ray are gone, rolled into one semi-amiable older detective, as is the friendly neighbourhood faux-Jamaican barman who might end up being a waitress at a local diner instead: it’s too early to say.

Much of the serious look at old-style police techniques has disappeared. The time required for blood work, the lack of tape recording of interviews, etc: if there was an equivalent disparity between US policing in 1972 and now, you won’t know about it from this show.

Even the idea of Chris searching through files rather than doing "proper policing" to unearth a clue has been changed into a single line by Gene Hunt talking about a records search turning up some useful information that tallies with Sam’s "hunch" about Raimes.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same, right down to Open University style broadcasts giving information to Sam from the outside world, something that is far less ambiguous here than it was in the British version. There are a few hints that (the Australian-sounding) Maya might be more important in this version than the British version, and there are a couple of dream-within-dream sequences, but other than that, call Xerox, we have a carbon copy here.

Anyway, it’s all changing. Who comes back for more and who stays remains to be seen. And maybe they’ll have a better sense of place come the relocation to New York.

But with a script that’s unlikely to change too much, I’d say brace yourself: it’s nowhere near as bad as we feared; it’s just not as good as we might have hoped.

Jason O’Mara: Sam Tyler
Rachelle LeFevre: Annie Cartwright
Colm Meaney: Gene Hunt
Stephanie Jacobsen: Maya
Lenny Clarke: George Randall
Patrick Wenk-Wolff : Colin Raimes
Richard Benjamin : Milton Kornboll


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.