wed 17/07/2024

Life on Mars, FX | reviews, news & interviews

Life on Mars, FX

Life on Mars, FX

Let's do the time-warp again

Life on Mars: Take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy

The American remake of Life on Mars was judged a flop by its jumpy network, ABC, and scratched after just one season – which gave the UK premiere less the anticipation of a launch party and more the slightly shameful miasma of a hangover.

And given that British audiences are well acquainted with the show’s audacious premise (that of a time-travelling cop in case anyone really has been on Mars) the foremost interest was always going to be ‘let’s see what kind of a hash the yanks have made of this one?’. Well, bad luck, this wasn't any kind of hash. It was great fun.

I well recall the dislocating experience of watching the first episode of the US version of The Office, with all these strange new actors inhabiting characters that the likes of Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman and Mackenzie Crook had seemingly made their own. Life on Mars was nothing like that. Sure, the broad premise is the same as the original, but New York in 1973 is sufficiently different from Ziggy Stardust-era Manchester to make it feel like something new, while the sumptuous Emmy-nominated cinematography makes the BBC version look like the cheap knock-off.

The cast is great, and surely only Pacino and De Niro could look more at home in 1970s New York than Harvey Keitel, trailing memories of his Scorsese roles in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Making his first (and probably now his last) regular television role, Keitel plays Gene Hunt as a baddish lieutenant, a gruff father-figure less at odds with Sam Tyler than Philip Glennister’s gleeful bad apple.

Tyler himself is played by Jason O’Mara - the Irish actor being the one constant throughout the US remake’s tortuous production process that saw David E Kelley supposedly helming the pilot, which was to be set in Chicago, with John Simm and Philip Glennister reprising their BBC roles (both turned down the offer), as well as ABC demanding  a complete remake of the pilot with a major overhaul of cast and crew.  O’Mara’s Sam Tyler is less touchy feely and more traditional lantern-jawed than John Simm’s original but every bit as watchable, while Michael Imperioli from The Sopranos, togged out every mutton-chopped inch as the Serpico-era plainclothes cop, plays Tyler’s main departmental adversary, Detective Ray Carling.

And look, there’s Denise Huxtable herself, Lisa Bonet, as Sam’s 2008 girlfriend, while Gretchen Moll plays his 1973 confidante, Annie "No Nuts" Norris – policewomen in 125th Precinct seen as helpers rather than equals. But then the sexism, the smoking and the other recidivist attitudes are familiar from the British Life on Mars – not to mention Mad Men.

Last night’s episode inevitably had a lot of scene-setting to encompass: Sam is run down, Sam awakes in a world of 8 tracks and Vietnam War headlines, Sam introduces himself at his old workplace which is now mysteriously transported back three and a half decades, and so on. It says something about 1973, or perhaps just Manhatten in any era, that the cops take in their stride his tale of being a visitor from the future.

The soundtrack rocks, albeit with no startling originality. There’s Bowie, of course, The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” (already familiar to TV viewers from CSI:NY), the Stones and, less predictably perhaps, Sweet’s glam romper-stomper, “Little Willy”. The opening scene set in 2008 is scored with Chris Cornell’s “Ground Zero”, and, by the way, the sight of the Twin Towers here, which proves to Sam Tyler that he must no longer be in 2008, is well done – properly awe-inspiring rather than cheaply sentimental. You only wish ABC could have shown such fine judgement.

Okay, so if not enough people watched it, not enough people watched it. But over three million viewers in the States were hanging on in there after 17 episodes, and it should be noted that Mad Men’s ratings have tripled over three seasons. It’s why the likes of HBO seem to be taking over the world and the networks are in ever deeper trouble. Is there life on Mars? No, but there is on cable.

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