ABC - 9th October 2008 - 10.00pm

I haven't seen the abandoned pilot so I'm not going to be able to make any comparisons between the two casts or between Harvey Keitel and Colm Meaney as Gene Hunt. The problem watching this, I found, was that knowing the UK version so well, the story of this first episode is so familiar that you end up having deja-vu for 40 odd minutes, not really engaging with any sense of suspense or drama that you should be wrapped up in because you're too busy tutting to yourself over the differences between the two versions and the fact that you already know the end. That last bit isn't strictly true and we'll get back to that in a minute. If you haven't seen the UK version of Life On Mars (and just where the hell have you been!) then you won't see the problems I see and you'll have your own criticisms of the dramatic conventions of US television to go with. In the end it will need to appeal to you as a completely new drama and I'd be interested to hear from any U.S. viewers who came to this totally cold.

...whereas Philip Glenister is the physical embodiment of bluff ol' Gene, Keitel actually looks old and rather scrawny in this
OK. Detective Sam Tyler. Jason O'Hara is a big hunk of a man, very appealing. No question. But he isn't Sam Tyler. Sam Tyler works as a character because he's, physically, a little man whose power comes from a huge emotional intellectualism. Gene and Sam are essentially the same person in Life On Mars - one representing the physical and the other the metaphysical; or the male and female, the ego and the id. The trouble with O'Hara, as commentator Paul Mount has already pointed out, is that he's a big beefy fella who could knock seven bells out of a weedy looking Harvey Keitel. And whereas Philip Glenister is very much the physical embodiment of bluff ol' Gene, Keitel actually looks old and rather scrawny in this. The casting is wrong and the characters are fighting against the physical types of the actors. The irony is that media exemplars surround the pair of them in this version - the camera lingers on episodes of Kojak and Cannon. Frank Cannon got the piss taken out of him because he's bloody huge but then he's not positioned as an action hero. Kojak swans around sucking a bloody lollipop. The U.S. producers are obviously very keen to get great big visual signifiers up on screen to constantly remind viewers that it is 1973 but they're strangely out of context with the way they are bringing Gene and Sam to the screen. So, cue all the long hair and silly moustaches and bits of 1970s cop shows to back up the anomalous physicality of the two leads.

The Sweeney represented a sea-change in the way the police were depicted in British television drama, Kojak and Cannon do not, to neither UK nor U.S. viewers.
The other difference is that the UK version, playing off the tropes of The Sweeney, wisely didn't have John Thaw pop up on Sam's television set. Personally, I would have played down the blatant 1970s references here, which the UK version succeeded in doing nine times out of ten, and would have looked to Serpico, The French Connection and Dirty Harry as Amercian tropes to work with as benchmarks. The Sweeney represented a sea-change in the way the police were depicted in British television drama, Kojak and Cannon do not, to neither UK nor U.S. viewers. They are examples of glossy, American police series that don't have the necessary seediness or grittiness that those three films have in bucket loads. The UK series also went for obscure references like Camberwick Green and the Test Card Girl and then made them part of the narrative in a witty and nightmarish manner. The clips of Kojak and Cannon are just very obvious set dressing. I do hope they get some very obscure American references to at least emulate the Test Card Girl. Like Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.

However, the opening and closing of the episode is very successful in that it takes a major symbol of both eras - the Twin Towers - to bookend the episode. There is certainly a frisson created here that will resonate with international viewers and this links into the paradoxical nature of Raimes, the killer, in this first episode. The killer in the 1970s inspires a neighbouring child (Colin Raimes) to become a killer in 2008 and the iconography of the Twin Towers, and both the presence and the absence of them, seems to tap into that uneasiness about sibling influences and indoctrination of violence. This brings us to some of the big differences betwen the UK and US versions in the narrative and, in consequence, the character of Sam Tyler. Firstly, the killer in 2008 has an identical twin to provide him with an alibi (the poorest addition to the narrative) and we see the Raimes twins as neighbours to the killer in the 1970s. This seems an unnecessary addition, even if it is a whopping great symbol of the Towers, and the two child actors look rather ridiculous in some very poor, unconvincing ginger wigs. The major problem lies in the coda where Sam Tyler actually goes back and confronts one of the children (Colin, the killer in 2008) and seems to be on the point of shooting him! What were the writers thinking of here? Sam is the voice of sanity in the programme, he's our lodestone in unfamiliar times, but here they've turned him into a detective tempted to murder a child. Not exactly a character you'll be warming too, then? Little John Simm wouldn't have done that.

They've been too busy sticking people into afro hairdos and wigs, moustaches and flares and thinking they've been clever.
The ensemble cast are OK. Jonathan Murphy is very good as Chris Skelton and captures the character's bumbling charm. Michael Imperioli struggled with the Ray Carling character and came across as totally lacking in charm. We know Ray is a misogynistic bigot but at least in the UK version he hides a very emotional and sensitive centre. And Michael's huge, drooping moustache will have to go. It looks really, really, silly. Gretchen Mol plays Annie and showed at least some grasp of the importance of the character's relationship with Sam. Jason O'Hara is perfect leading actor material but he's not Sam Tyler. He's going to have to work damn hard to get that right. But what of Mr. Keitel, I hear you cry. He's got potential, despite the physical limitations I mentioned, and the scene where he butters up Mrs. Raimes, a wonderful Phyllis Somerville, with coffee, brandy and biscuits was spot on. I think the difficulty here will be how far ABC will allow the Huntisms to go. The visceral shock of Glenister's barbs is missing and that's what defines the character in opposition to Sam. So the jury is out on Keitel. They haven't quite focused in on the social and political differences between the two men and their respective times. They've been too busy sticking people into afro hairdos and wigs, moustaches and flares and thinking they've been clever.

Everything else about Out Here In The Fields is pretty much a carbon copy of the original opening episode in the UK. The way that the show is lit and uses colour - cold blues and greys for the scenes in 2008 and warm browns for 1973 - is the same. The music is the same. Even Sam's outfit is the same. For this to work, the show needs to adjust its tone and start taking the stories off into areas that the UK version didn't touch because really there isn't any point at all. It could learn a great deal from the U.S. versions of The Office and Queer As Folk as to how it can become an entity in its own right. The Lisa Bonet character, Maya Daniels, is indicated as a recurring character, one whom might well have more involvement in the narrative, which is quite different from the UK version where her fate only bookended Series 1. That's to be encouraged.

Not a hugely successful start and it will ultimately depend on how U.S. viewers take to it to ensure that it gets a chance to develop. It is too much of a clone of its, far subtler, UK version and the script doesn't quite get the characters across emotionally. For all the producers' talk of 'creating a mythology' there isn't much evidence of that yet.

ABC Life On Mars site

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank-you for this interesting review.


  2. I think it's got promise if it can move away from slavishly recreating the UK series. If it can generate its own stories and situations then I'm all for it. It'll be an entity in its own right.

  3. You nailed it perfectly. Particularly the bit about the unfortunate ginger wigs. Also did I note an accent slip with the fella playing Tyler? Haven't these casting folks learned anything from watching Without A Trace?

  4. Anonymous says:

    well I loved the show...I grew up in the 70's
    and from not know the BBC life on mars..The us show was great. the music, the scenes of nyc back its a shame such work and its off the air

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