Why did Life on Mars work in the U.K. but not in the U.S.?

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Jan. 19 2010 6:53 AM

Life on Mars

Why Americans hated the British hit. Plus: The dumbest finale in TV history.

Still from Life on Mars. Click image to expand.
Jason O'Mara in Life on Mars

Life on Mars hit U.K. television screens in early 2006. It introduced us to a modern-day Manchester cop named Sam Tyler—who is promptly hit by a car, knocked unconscious, and magically transported back to 1973. The bewildered Sam (now nattily attired in period-appropriate leather blazer and polyester slacks) stumbles into the nearest precinct station only to find a new team of detectives (sideburned, wide-lapelled) expecting his arrival. Sam takes up policing right where he left off, chasing thieves and murderers in the past, all the while desperately searching for some sort of doorway back to the present. "Am I mad? In a coma? Or back in time?" he asks over each episode's opening, laying out the central puzzle for the viewer.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

This is the highest of high-concept concepts. And it might just be the cleverest premise in the history of televised drama. Consider that in its first few minutes of airtime, Life on Mars manages to establish a triple-genre mashup: 1) a Law & Order-style police procedural, with each episode presenting a discrete 1973 crime for Sam to solve; 2) a Mad Men-style period piece, reanimating a bygone era's delicious aesthetics and risible workplace dynamics; 3) a Lost-style supernatural serial in which a mystery looms spookily over the program's whole arc, stringing us along with dribbled-out clues and revelations.

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The series never quite lived up to the genius of its conception. (It's arguably inferior to all three shows mentioned above.) But the BBC Life on MarsSeason 1 was released on DVD here last summer, with Season 2 following in late fall—offered just enough charm, chuckles, and savory plot twists to buoy viewers along for 16 extremely painless episodes. It became a critical and popular success on the other side of the Atlantic.

Which, coupled with the show's easy-to-grok sci-fi storyline, guaranteed an American remake. The U.S. version of Life on Mars debuted on ABC in fall 2008. By spring 2009, it had been quietly canceled. (It was released on DVD in its entirety in September.) The American show stole its story lines, characters, and can't-miss conceit directly from its predecessor. So why did raves and ratings over there translate to yawns and shrugs over here?

The producers of the American version of The Office reportedly said they set out to make "the exact same series but with 10 percent more hope." It simply wouldn't fly to portray the Dunder Miffliners of Scranton, Pa., as sallow zombies drained of prospects and ambition, whereas the dead-end drones of Wernham Hogg's Slough, England, branch looked right at home on British television. The American producers of Life on Mars clearly had a similar formula in mind, but were I to guess at the exact equation I'd gauge it at: 10 percent more hope, 30 percent more schmaltz, 50 percent more glamour, and 700 percent better production values.

The gaudy re-creation of 1973 New York City—filmed on location with a full complement of bell-bottomed extras, shit-brown Oldsmobile sedans, and even a cameo appearance by the Twin Towers—puts the 1973 Manchester of the original series to budgetary shame. Likewise, the American casting is all marquee quality. Harvey Keitel and Gretchen Mol have starred in Hollywood films and surely never imagined in those headier days that they'd end up supporting players on a TV show.

Nabbing Keitel in particular must have seemed like a coup. But his presence weakens the show. The septuagenarian lacks the beefy virility that British actor Philip Glenister brought to the role of Sam's boss, chief detective Gene Hunt, in the BBC show. Glenister's Hunt is everything we treasure in a '70s television cop: He's crude, sexist, mildly racist in a nonmalicious way, built like a bull, and forever itching to knock heads. Much of Hunt's dialogue (e.g., "You great, soft, sissy, girly, nancy, French, bender, Man United-supporting poof!"—which, for those who don't speak 1970s Cro-Magnon Brit, is basically a list of synonyms for homosexual) offers guilty laughs in the Archie Bunker mold, with a wincing Sam functioning as a sort of Meathead from the future.

Mol, who plays Sam's U.S. love interest, is markedly blonder, thinner, and hotter than her BBC counterpart, yet has half the warmth and sex appeal. (Mol just seems to involuntarily exude off-putting brittleness at all times. I call it "Bridget Moynihan syndrome.") Meanwhile, Sam's U.S. upgrade—much like the one given to the Tim/Jim character on The Office—has him inhabiting an actor twice as handsome and five inches taller.

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.

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