Sunday, November 02, 2008

Never Judge A Show by It's Pilot: Life On Mars

Last time I wrote about how and why we either hit or miss the mark when doing an American version of a foreign television show (Never Judge A Show by It's Pilot: Kath & Kim). This time we seemed to have gotten it right with Life On Mars. At least I hope we did.

This American version of Life On Mars (Based on the BBC Drama of the same name) is one of the few shows I wanted to see this FALL 2007 Part II season. In the interest of full disclosure I want to copy and paste what I wrote last year when I reviewed Journeyman, "Anyone who knows me knows that I love time travel stories. A couple of years ago I even attempted to write a pilot about a man who could travel through time. So when I heard about the new NBC drama Journeyman, a show about a man who has the ability to go back in time, I was there." I felt the same way when I heard about Life On Mars. To counter my time travel optimism I have to express concerns since there is a fifty-fifty chance that we Americans will screw this show up.

Prior to watching the pilot I watched the pilot of the BBC show on BBC America (BBC America provides subtitles with the broadcast when the accents get too thick). The show centers on Greater Manchester Police DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Sam Tyler (John Simm) who is hit by a car in 2006 and winds in 1973. The title of the show is taken from the David Bowie song Life on Mars? that is playing on the iPod in Sam's Jeep Grand Cherokee. After awaking in 1973 Sam hears the song playing on an 8-track tape in a Rover P6. There (or should it be then?) Sam works for Manchester and Salford Police CID (Criminal Investigation Department) as a DI (Detective Inspectors) under DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Sam deals with culture shock working through the differences between his 2006 by the book approach to police work and the 1973 rouge methods of his new colleagues. Sam does get messages from his own time through electronic devices. On his down time Sam also investigates possibilities as to why he is in 1973 with the help of the only person who he can truly confide in WPC (Woman Police Constable) Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Sam is not sure if he is insane, in a coma, or if he really has traveled back in time. I liked the British pilot. There were elements from Back to the Future, Quantum Leap, Journeyman and Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

I watched the American version of the show (Out Here in the Fields) and it was true to the original. Jason O'Mara, is Detective Sam Tyler. Harvey Keitel plays Lieutenant Gene Hunt. Gretchen Mol plays Annie "No Nuts" Norris (not Cartwright) a member of the Policewomen's Bureau. Michael Imperioli plays Detective Ray Carling and Lisa Bonet is Tyler's 2008 girl friend, Maya Daniels. The sprit of the BBC version is alive and well here. I read that the show originally shot a pilot (Hit and Run ) set in Los Angeles but that pilot was scrapped in favor of New York. As a person who lived in Los Angeles in 1973 and as much as I would have loved the nostalgia factor, New York is the better location. New York is grittier. Having the show set in New York also allowed a more touching moment where Sam realizes that he is in 1973 when he sees the newly built World Trade Center. The same scene in the BBC version was a more humorous "I don’t think we’re in Kansas" moment. The detectives at the 125th precinct all have the same goal to clean the streets of criminals. Sam Tyler has professional ethics that fall somewhere between Joe Friday (Dragnet) and Barney Miller , in contrast to Lieutenant Gene Hunt and Detective Ray Carling who are more like Dirty Harry and don’t mind playing dirty while cleaning the streets. I liked the show but as you know by now I never judge a show by it’s pilot.

The next episode (The Real Adventures of the Unreal Sam Tyler) has the detectives at the 125th precinct in the middle of an investigation involving robbery-homicides at check-cashing stores. Later Sam, while at the 125, writes on a chalkboard every reason he can think of as to why he is in 1973. Sam feels that until he figures out why he is in 1973 he must do what he does best and that is to catch bad guys. I as a viewer know that I won’t have an answer to the time travel question for awhile but the case that Sam is currently working on does hold my interest. I believe the intent here is to have a show that will appeal to a large audience and not just science fiction fans. I liked the episode but remember I opened this article with, "This time we seemed to have gotten it right with Life On Mars. At least I hope we did.". I still have some concerns for the show's longevity. The BBC series ran for only 2 (English) seasons totaling 16 episodes (List of episodes) then a spun off Ashes to Ashes. We do up to 22 episodes in one of our seasons. Can the plot last that long? The audience will eventually want to know how and why Sam went back in time. Does the audience want to know the time travel logistics early on so they can follow the story? In today’s world of instant gratification, will the audience keep tuning in unless all is revealed? I guess only time will tell.

To quote Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel): If I'd wanted to be this bored, I'd go to Mass with the missus and her miserable mother.

Stay Tuned
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