Posted by: wolferiver | October 12, 2008

The Americanization Of Life On Mars

So, the much discussed and gossiped about American version of Life On Mars finally reached my TV screen, almost a year later than it was supposed to. 

I was one of those who was dubious about this effort.  I watched both seasons of the original British version on BBC America, and was a huge fan.  It was, I thought, a great concept and well executed, and with a great cast.  At the time it was announced that an American version was in development, I wasn’t particularly dismayed.  I’m not one of those who’s first thought when hearing about Americanizations is that the original concept will be messed up beyond all recognition.  Occasionally that happens, but occasionally, the Americanization works equally well as the British original.  It seemed to me that the concept of revisiting a 70’s style crime show with 21st century viewpoint would be a surefire winner.  Certainly a more likely prospect for success than the American version of The Office seemed, and look at how well that effort confounded its critics.

What made me dubious was seeing the initial previews on NBC’s website last spring, which seemed to set the show in Los Angeles, and seemed to give it an 80’s vibe.  Los Angeles no doubt has plenty of seedy neighborhoods, but no one has any recollection of any famous 70s crime drama being set there.  And for Life On Mars to succeed in the States, it has to be able to evoke America’s collective memory of 70’s police procedurals — such as Clint Eastwoods “Dirty Harry” movies, or better yet, the two “French Connection” movies, where policing is done mostly by brute force.  Note that none of these were set in Los Angeles, where the sun always shines and everybody always acts happy. 

Now take a look at a promotional picture from ABC’s first Life On Mars version.  How bright and sunny!  How wrong it looks!  Even seeing that Colm Meaney, who was originally cast as Detective Gene Hunt seemed somehow wrong; he’s a fine actor, but his American accent leaves something to be desired.  It sure didn’t look like we were going to be treated to any retro 70’s “gritty streets” that the original show had.  Then word came out that the entire pilot was recast (except for the lead actor) and reshot.  This only seemed to prove out my fears.

Happily, the recasting and reshooting seemed to have worked.  The show hasn’t fallen on its face.  Harvey Keitel was cast in the Philip Glennister role (taking the place of Colm Meaney), which I think is a stroke of genius.  As someone who actually starred in gritty crime dramas IN the actual 70’s, this is a pretty big coup for the makers of the show.  It’s hard to imagine a better casting choice.  The other detectives in the precinct, particularly Michael Imperioli as Detective Ray Carling, look absolutely authentic.  The makers even got the casting for Annie Norris, the precinct’s lone policewoman, right.  I had thought that they’d succumb to the usual temptation of casting solely on sexy looks, giving the character a hard and sophisticated edge, which would be quite out of place in that time.  It isn’t that women weren’t hard and sophisticated then, but that was not typical.  Think of the sort of women that appeared on television back then, such as Mary Tyler Moore, or Charlie’s Angels, and you’ll see what I mean.  Whatever else those TV characters were, they were essentially sweet and innocent.  It was, after all, a simpler time, and the sexual revolution hadn’t really kicked in.  Annie Norris’s essential decency and sweetness is pretty important in the show, and making her hard and cynical would’ve made her pointless within the sea of hardened cynical cops.  Furthermore, back then, women weren’t in the police force at all, and those that entered it, usually had no clue about the sexism and crudeness that they would encounter. 

Life On Mars is at once a fish out of water story, and a nostalgic time travel story (don’t worry, it’s not scifi), all wrapped up with a story about a journey home.  The essence of this story is set over 35 years ago, and I think it’s instructive to see how far things have changed since then.  I’m particularly happy that the producers got every detail right.  As someone who lived through this era, it seems to me that all the period details and the social mores of the times have been captured better than I had hoped.  My only complaint so far is that the American Sam Tyler spends an awful lot of time bleating about his disbelief that he’s back in such a primitive time.  I don’t recollect the British Sam Tyler acting quite so befuddled, and he seemed to be better able to grasp his situation and get on with things.  I’ll be keeping this show on my DVR schedule, but so far it isn’t on my “must see” list.

Interesting Links:

The BBC’s Life On Mars trailer, complete with very cool Led Zeppelin soundtrack.  It certainly looks like “must see” TV.

The first ABC version of Life On Mars trailer.  Dull as ditchwater, if you ask me.

The second ABC version of Life On Mars trailer.  If you think it looks and sounds a bit old fashioned, that’s because it is.  It looks like a deliberate attempt to make a 70’s style TV promo.  It’s an improvement over the first version promo, but doesn’t look nearly as interesting as the BBC’s promo.



  1. I had to do some marketing for LoM so I was obliged to turn in, and I was far more taken with it than I expected. I thought all of the actors were well cast and Michael Imperioli is someone who I am happy to see in an intereting post-Soprano’s role.

    They also managed to not only pick out good music, but use it appropriately.

    I am with you. I will DVR and watch, hope it stays good and hope it doesn’t pull a Fringe (high expectations that do NOT pan out)

  2. They had brilliant music selections, with an especially imaginative use of “Little Willie” (er…that’s during the big chase scene). That’s not a song that immediately leaps to mind when thinking about what to use for a chase sequence. Those are all 70’s songs, but very few of them are the over-exposed ones we hear incessantly on oldies radio. Except for Baba O’Riley, but then, for me, anything by The Who is transcendently evergreen.

    I rewatched the episode again and was really struck by the photography and editing when they all realize what the old lady just told them and all of them leg it out of the station. Some director put a lot of thought into that sequence.

    I’m slightly more impressed after seeing this episode again. This time around I saw some flashes of wit and imagination that I hadn’t expected and it makes me think that the show will probably improve.

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