The Three Strike Rule: “Life on Mars”

Shaun Hamid is back tossing his voice into the TV arena with me.  We hope that in the coming weeks you, our readers, will help continue our conversations about television as art and entertainment.

Shaun: The U.S. version of the BBC cult show, Life on Mars, has arrived after much tooling on ABC (Thursdays, 10 PM).  For its premiere it received a rather strong response, but it has been losing its audience in the intervening weeks.  Considering the ambitious nature of the series, and its potential, one can only hope that ABC is patient enough to see if it can find its own identity.

The premise of Life on Mars is that present day NYPD Detective Sam Tyler, played by Jason O’Mara, is hit by a car while investigating a case.  When he wakes up, he is in 1973 New York.  He is not sure if this is some elaborate hallucination or the afterlife.

Occasionally, he hears the sounds of a hospital room in his head, leading the Sam (and the audience) to believe he is in a coma or similar state in 2008.  However, the 1973 world he inhabits is so vivid that it is hard to really know which world Sam knows is actually more real.  In 1973, Sam is still a cop, and he works out of a precinct which is ruled by Lieutenant Gene Hunt (played by Harvey Keitel), with his two main men Detective Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli) and Detective Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy).

Sam’s intrusion with his 30 years of advanced political correctness and procedural adherence is not met kindly by the gut-instinct approach of Hunt.  Sam would otherwise go crazy, if he is not already, were it not for the calming force of Officer Annie Norris (an understated Gretchen Mol).  Gene and Sam stand at odds, but in the end they both basically want to do the right thing.  How Sam finds his way to live in this archaic world or manages his way home is what invests you in the series.It’s difficult to not compare this version with the original. Indeed, it is obvious that the minds behind the U.S. version (producers Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg) are very aware of the shadow that it casts.

Like The Office, there is a transition that needs to happen while remaining true to the original.  While most of the key elements are present, there had to be adjustments to make the series longer than the BBC original’s sixteen episode run.  There is a feeling of legitimate homage to the original, but there is also a sense that they are attempting something at its heart which is wholly different than the BBC version.  This constant attempt to establish itself seems to create a conflicting identity.  Something that makes the actors seem uncomfortable in their roles, and the writers not entirely sure of where they are going.

Imperioli’s take as a tough Burroughs-born cop passes well in spite of this, he plays strong against what I feel is a somewhat uneven performance from star O’Mara.  Keitel, on the other hand, gives a great performance as is customary for him, but alas, is sadly miscast.  For anyone who has seen the original, Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt is a large and imposing figure.  You the viewer have a feeling that he could wipe the floor with Sam.  Keitel does not match up as well with O’Mara.  I think that this lack of physical presence is distracting in scenes that are often well placed and executed throughout the first three episodes.  However, it cannot be understated how well the inventive and interesting premise translates.  The wonder and puzzlement of Sam Tyler is present, and it remains so because even viewers of the original know that the twist this time around could be entirely new.

Scott: I have to disagree about Jason O’Mara.  I think he’s quite good in the show.  Considering that he has to be in every scene and that he’s placed with the burden of replacing the great John Simms from the original BBC series, he’s doing great.  Moreover, he holds his own against heavyweight vets like Keitel and Imperioli. After watching last week’s episode, I have a hunch about the direction the show will take. It seems that Emmy winner Imperioli’s Ray (a somewhat comic relief role in the British version) is going to be interacting with O’Mara more regularly than the Hunt character.  Whereas the BBC version was a study of the relationship between Sam and Hunt,I suspect that in this U.S. Life on Mars Hunt will act more like the type of office lieutenant we saw on so many of those 70’s cops shows Life on Mars is paying tribute to.  This is a smart move.  Like you said, Shaun, Keitel doesn’t have the physical dominance to really lead us to believe that he could kick anyone’s ass in the squad room.  I hope that the show begins to incorporate the visual styles of 70’s era cop shows like Streets of San Francisco and Hawaii Five-O. I believe by adopting that look and pacing, the show real really capture 1973 both for Sam and the viewers. In the most recent episode, the original music began incorporating the heavy strings and horns that lead us in and out of scenes. This homage to those old school cop shows is both fun and funny.

The show’ producers have said that they have a plan for how to continue the series should it make it past the number of plots that made up the BBC series.  It looks like they are gradually going to take their time in introducing these plotlines because at the moment, every episode has been a remake of one of the original BBC plots.  Still I am trusting the show runners.  In a very high concept show like this one, they’re paying attention to character development and making everyone on Life on Mars three dimensional. Additionally, an impending romance between Sam and Annie is not being forced, nor are they trying to quickly make changes to the atmosphere of the squad room. We know that Annie is smart, and Sam realizes that she should be doing so much more than making copies.  That they waited until the third episode to even introduce how important her character will become shows patience.

Shaun: I think we agree that Mol is standing out with each progressive episode.  Life on Mars is a show with a lot of potential.  It can at once serve as a wonderful nostalgia piece and homage to past cop shows, and also build upon a more modern style mythology based storyline.    One can only hope that it is given room to grow and adapt so that the show can reach this potential.  As a group, these are all capable actors, and in the case of Keitel and Imperioli, well-proven as well.  The BBC series was noted for its steady and unflinching adherence to the tale that was being told.  While this was partially due to the short run of the series, it was still quite an achievement.  We can only hope that the U.S. version maintains this.  Once the show begins to establish its voice and direction it has the ability of a show like Heroes or Lost which draw a devoted following.  Life on Mars impresses more than it disappoints, the only flaw is that it might not impress enough or fast enough to spare it.  Considering the investment in cast and design, one has to believe that ABC is willing to give it a little bit of time to develop and adapt.  Once it does, Life on Mars might be right there next to The Office as one of the most successful series to cross the pond, and one of the most rewarding.