This turns out to be a crucial casting misstep. In the BBC show, Sam is a slightly built, measured, efficient, semi-emasculated modern man who is constantly at odds with Hunt's sloppy, barrel-chested bluster. Among the show's subtler strengths is the way it gradually allows the two men to meet each other halfway—with Hunt learning to overcome his baser instincts and Sam coming to see the value in occasionally knocking a few heads. On the ABC version, where Hunt is played by the scrawny and desiccated Keitel, Sam physically towers over his foil and thus the visual effect (along with the tension between the characters) is ruined. What use has Sam for an antiquated relic he can easily whup in both a battle of wits and a fistfight?
The BBC series called it quits at the end of its second season. A smart finale answered all the overarching questions—did Sam fall into a coma? Or into a time portal?—while introducing a handful of brand-new philosophical conundrums. As for the ABC show? Upon learning they'd been canceled, the show's producers scrambled to ensure their final episode would offer viewers some closure. They couldn't leave us hanging. So they activated the daring twist ending they swear they'd been planning on all along.
I would spoiler alert you. But there isn't any point. The finale itself spoils whatever goodwill the show may have previously earned with its audience. So here's what happens:
Sam wakes up in the year 2035 as an astronaut aboard a spaceship bound for Mars. It turns out his life as a cop in 1973 was a holodeck-type virtual-reality program—one Sam had picked out to entertain himself as he hibernated in a pod during the long space voyage. But wait, you interrupt with knitted brow, how does this explain the fact that the first episode of Life on Mars depicts Sam as a cop in 2008? Why would his virtual-reality program briefly plop him into one past era, and then confuse him by booting him further back in time for no clear reason? Ah, that too is part of the computer mirage. A glitch in the software caused the whole cop scenario to flicker between decades!
This is, without doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever seen happen on a scripted TV show. It insults the intelligence of everyone, living and dead, who has ever followed the logical narrative arc of a television series. American producers took the show's British title—which referred to the 1970's Bowie song, to Sam's alienation in a strange new world, and, if I may get fanciful, perhaps even to the reddish-orange tint shared by the planet Mars and by '70s-era film stock—and interpreted it in the most droolingly literal manner imaginable. Just recalling this has compelled me to raise my hands from my laptop keyboard so I can use them to firmly slap my own forehead.
If you haven't seen it, it's well worth checking out the U.K. Life on Mars. In the end, it's not the high-wire premise that wins you over. It's the baggy, low-key vibe the show achieves in its quieter moments—leaving you feeling weirdly nostalgic for 1970s Britain. You'll want to pull on a paisley shirt, pop in a Bowie eight-track, and down lukewarm pints with Sam and Gene at their cozy, wallpapered neighborhood pub.
It's this want-to-live-in-its-world-ness that the bigger, brassier American Life on Mars never quite pulls off. It's so focused on name actors and eye-popping sets that it forgets to craft a distinctive ambience—the kind a viewer wants to dive into for an hour each week. Watching these two different versions of the same series back to back, it's satisfying to remember that even the boldest of conceits can rise or fall on the strength of its humblest, gentlest details.