Thursday, October 30, 2008
I have made a thousand promises that I will not do that tedious thing of comparing ABC's Americanized version of Life on Mars to its earlier British counterpart that ran last year on BBC America. Let's see how well I do.
Life on Mars is one of those new hybrid shows that trades on a number of genres simultaneously: cop-shop actioner; fish-out-of-water comedy; slow-boil romance; and sci-fi/metaphysical/time-travel brain-buster.
It's got -- I think -- a great premise: New York City cop Sam Tyler has an accident, wakes up as his 2008 self but in 1973. He reports to the 125th Precinct without much incident -- they're awaiting a new transfer. But other than keeping his job, Tyler is very much at sea. (He's not even old enough to have processed 1973 the first time.)
Obviously, there's much material to be mined form how different life -- and policing -- was 35 years ago, though this can quickly become the weakest crutch the show uses. (As Tyler gets used to 1973, so should we.)
But just what the beejeesus happened to Tyler; why does he seem to still be in semi-communication with 2008; and do the events of his new "now" in 1973 hold any meaning to his other "present" in 2008? Already, Tyler has had strange intersections of places, events and people -- even perhaps, catching sight of himself, as a small child. (Even weirder, the kid looked right at the grown-up version of himself.)
These overlapping mysteries will be enough to float this show over some of its rougher patches, which include an inauthentic cop-shop (it feels very TV-show-ish); too much gilding of 1970s wackiness; terribly written roles for the ladies (a "novelty" of policewoman, and a silly hippie-chick neighbor); and the miscasting of New York City.
OK, I gotta get this in. One of the reasons the British show worked well was that it was set not in big-city London with all its cosmopolitan, up-to-the-minute-ness but in Manchester, then a fading industrial provincial city, where if it was 1973, it might as well have been 1963. (We forget in today's world shrunk so effectively by technology, that sleepy cities out in the sticks really did operate differently, separated as they were from major centers.) That distance, both geographic and psychic, made the English Sam Tyler's experience feel even more disconnected and surreal. It also made the modern-day policing techniques he brought to his 1973 colleague all the more strange to them; there was a two-way track of wonderment.
New York of 1973 is still too up-to-date, too throbbing with new life and variety to be that mystifying to a visitor from the future. Plus, the narrative relies a certain amount of coincidence, which is a contrivance harder to accept in such a huge sprawling place (already in three episodes we've hit a couple boroughs).
(Though using New York let the producers give the newly-arrived-in-1973 Tyler one definite sign that something was seriously off: He looks up and there are the Twin Towers.)
The British show worked itself out over two seasons of about 18 episodes or so. There was a definitive conclusion, which I found, if not the one I really wanted -- the show flirted with a number of explanations -- was at least still acceptable.
The U.S. version could easily take a different tack. Already, some clues to the future-past interconnectivenes suggest there might a different resolution.
Life on Mars is by no means as intriguing as, say, the first season of Lost which piled puzzle upon puzzle. The cop-shop aspect means viewers get a neatly wrapped-up crime story every week which I find a bit retro. But, I'm happy to see any show that asks the viewer to pay attention over the course of a season toward a conclusion that may or may not pan out -- or pay off.
Of course, success means that this show will get dragged out well past its expiration date and get bogged down in meaninglessness (see also: Lost, Twin Peaks). On the other hand, an early cancellation could leave viewers hanging in mid-season, no closer to knowing what happened to Tyler or why.
Though that would be the perfect excuse to rent the DVDs of the British version.