22 May, 2008

It's on America's tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow


So here's the thing.

Last year, I watched a brilliant little BBC TV series called Life On Mars.* A great show, it revolved around a modern-day cop called Sam Tyler who is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973, working alongside a tough bastard called Gene Hunt, whose sole focus is catching the bad guy whatever it takes. So each episode works as a police procedural - a crime is committed, they have to solve it - but there's a strong element of the clash-of-different-cultures as Sam discovers just how different the world of thirty-odd years ago actually was - pretty much like in every time-travel story. In addition, there's also the obvious question, posed by Sam in each episode's opening credits - has he really travelled back in time, is he in a coma and is the 1973 world all in his imagination, or is he a 1970s madman who just thinks he comes from 2005. Although the show did drop a few hints in each direction, I always thought the answer was pretty clear - the question was more interesting as an insight into Sam's own uncertainty about who he was than as a reflection of a mystery within the show itself - and in the final episode, my belief was confirmed. The series ended, after 16 episodes over two seasons, with an ending both happy and hopeful, and terribly tragic and depressing - as a concept, the ending was a terrible thing, but emotionally it was satisfying and cathartic. A perfect ending.

The show makers returned to the concept this year with Ashes To Ashes, a sequel series in which a female cop, Alex Drake, is shot and finds herself in the 1980s with Gene Hunt. The series is enjoyable, well-made, and intriguing, and I look forward to the next series, but it's not quite as great as Life On Mars was.

Which brings me to my main point. The US television network ABC is making an American remake of the show. Sam travels back to 1972 And I'm a little uncomfortable with it. I'll probably have a look at it, just to see whether it works at all - although I suspect it will probably mostly have car-crash appeal if anything. It's just not looking terribly promising at the moment. The pilot episode was made by David E Kelley - he who inflicted the "ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga" dancing baby on the world. To be honest - Life On Mars is actually a very tough violent show at times, and I'm not really sure James Spader and William Shatner smoking cigars on the balcony is quite right tonally.

Fortunately, Kelley is not going to be working on the show past the pilot. Instead, the show will be made by the showrunners behind a programme called October Road. Now, I don't really know much about this guy-returns-to-his-hometown programme, so I can't really comment on it too much. What I do know is that everyone I have read who writing about the Life On Mars remake is bemoaning the fact that these guys are coming onto the show, so I assume October Road wasn't very good. And that's not a terribly promising sign.

Nor do I know much about the cast, which you can see to the left. The only cast member I actually know is Colm Meaney, who I first encountered when he was a supporting cast member on Star Trek: The Next Generation, before the character become core cast in Deep Space 9. Now I like Colm Meaney's casting - I think he could do well with the role of Gene Hunt, a difficult role that requires him to be violent, charismatic, offensive, bullying, and charming. And I quite like him in the photo at the top of the post - he actually looks like he's got the character in that picture. (He certainly looks a lot better than in the photo to the left, where he just seems out of place, almost looking like a nervous teenaged boy going to the school dance wearing his father's suit.)

With the other cast members, we'll see how they do once the show airs. (I assume the guy with the moustache is the show's equivalent of Ray, although I think they've renamed him).

Which brings me to one of the things that really was bothering me - the fact that most of the main the characters retained the original names. We've got Sam Tyler. We've got Gene Hunt. We've got Annie Cartwright. One of the (many) good things about the US version of The Office was that the actors were clearly playing the same roles, but they each had new names. It was a nice move that allowed the new show a bit of space to be its own entity, allowing you to view Michael Scott as a different, but similar, person to David Brent. It's a subtle point, but it does allow a bit of distance between the two versions. Whereas, with Life On Mars, regardless of the merits of the new show, hearing people constantly refer to Gene Hunt and have it not be Phillip Glenister would just be a constant reminder that there is another version out there.

And then I saw the promo for the US version (which is embedded at the end of the post). And it really does look bad. Again, a lot of it could be the fault of the ABC promo department - I can understand that it would be a difficult show to sell (although surely not too difficult for the network that managed to sell Lost and Pushing Daisies). But really, with the exception of a couple of short moments, the promo makes it feel terribly light and funny - right down to that ghastly disco track that accompanies Sam waking up. There is precious little to hint at the harder tone of the original series. And that is a shame.

Still, I might have a look at it when it airs - if out of curiosity. I hope the show is good. I'm also intrigued by the fact that the showrunners have apparently got some kind of plan for extending the life of the show - the original concept did have a naturally limited lifespan, hence the fact that it ended after only two seasons and 16 episodes. I have heard reports that the new showrunners have developed some way of justifying the show having the longer run required by US television if the show succeeds. And I'm curious what that is.

So we'll see what the new show is like. I'm not optimistic, but I'll give it a chance and hope for the best.

* The show's title actually comes from the David Bowie anthem called "Life On Mars?", and while there are one or two connections between the song and the series (the line "Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy", possibly the girl in the song as the Test Card girl), the song (to my mind anyway) doesn't have a lot of connection to the show itself. It happens to be the song Sam was listening to in 2005 when he was hit by the car, and it's playing when he wakes up in the 1970s. The song is more significant emotionally - it's a powerful song, and is used at pivotal moments during the show to achieve an emotional reaction in the viewer. (Personally, I had never heard the song before seeing the show, and now I adore it - brilliant song.) So the show's title doesn't really mean anything beyond that song being the one thing that ties the 2005 and 1973 worlds together.

2 comments:

eT said...

From Wired News, 28 June: After the ABC pilot received bad reviews '...it's being rewritten, moved from a Los Angeles setting to New York, and recast from scratch. It's all part of a last-ditch effort to save a series ABC had high hopes for when it worked out the remake rights'

http://blog.wired.com/underwire/2008/06/uks-classic-lif.html

Matthew L said...

Some of that article is old news - I actually refer to David E Kelly being gone in my post, for example. But a lot of it I hadn't heard.

I've actually seen the US pilot, and ... it didn't seem quite that bad to me. It wasn't great, but it wasn't quite the trainwreck I was expecting.

I certainly didn't think the cast was too bad. I especially thought Colm Meany did as well with Gene Hunt as would be possible (given the constraints he was under, which I'll get to in a minute). The others weren't great, but they weren't bad, and it's a rare pilot that doesn't feel awkward - especially with a show like this where the show itself is so different to anything else that people would naturally have trouble adjusting. (I'm still amazed at how the original hit the right tone immediately.)

Changing the setting? Please - whatever the show's problems were, no-one watching was thinking "this would be a great show if it were only set in NY instead of LA".

Fundamentally, the pilot's main problem was that it was on network television. So much of the show's success revolves around the character of Gene Hunt. And while Colm Meany did a good job with what he was given (and I'm hoping against hope he won't be lost in the "recast from scratch"), being on a network limited their ability to show him being violent, sexist, racist, drunken - pretty much everything that makes the character so watchable. Gene Hunt couldn't even swear. The show is about a guy who finds himself in a completely different world, but their ability to really show that difference is constrained because they can't show all the bad parts that create the contrast. Rendering the whole exercise pointless.