04 April, 2009

Not the Best-Selling Show

So, Life on Mars finished this week. Not the British version that starred John Simm, but the American version with Jason O'Mara. I have to admit, I've kind of cheated on this show; I watched the first three, then kept 'acquiring' the next episode without watching it. But based primarily on the first and last episodes, it does feel as if they got it right in quite unexpected ways.

The American series has a lot less of the surreal elements of the original - there's no test card girl, fewer incidents of ironic pop references. What it does have is an excellent period score straight out of Starsky and Hutch and a proper ending that makes utter sense, is memorable and very different to anything around it.

It was also an ending we'd heard rumoured for the original series. I'm not going to say which ending that is, in case it spoils it for anyone who might breeze past this, but I much prefer the American one.

What the USA version has over the original is the chance to use the success of the 'first draft' and make different choices. The emotional beat that comes from the 1973 reveal in the first episode is much stronger in the remake; the billboard for a new construction development is replaced with something that will make even non-Americans gasp.

One other difference is that I've met the star of the remake; he's a friend of a friend and we chatted at a party about eight years ago. He's a charismatic, attractive fella, though he's done well to hide his Dublin accent with an authentic-sounding American one. I have to wonder what it would have been like if original choice for Gene Hunt, Colm Meaney had been kept on for the series: two Irish blokes playing two New Yorkers.

Speaking of Gene Hunt, the odd clunker here is Harvey Keitel. They've made him much more likeable, more honourable, which strangely makes him less loveable than Robert Glenister's cruder, brasher approach. Most of Gene Hunt's Jurassic aspects have been shunted onto Ray, here played by Sopranos star Michael Imperioli. It means Ray as a character is beefed up a lot more, but we lose the iconic Gene Hunt that so made the Beeb demand an ill-advised sequel.

The way this version ends is conclusive, confident and original. It might also feel a little obvious, but the nice thing is, it's seeded in lines of dialogue, plus visual and aural hints throughout the series (well, I'm assuming it is - there's that big gap of 13 episodes in the middle I haven't seen).

I've painted myself into a corner here. I'm not going to discuss the ending, but I'm not going to blow the beginning either. I'll just finish by congratulating the production team on making a series that appears to have been much better than its ratings deserved. Which is a good thing. It meant they could tell the story from beginning to end without having to fudge it with doing Ashes to Ashes too.

Although I'm now curious to see if they can stretch the British version into a third version where Gene Hunt is in the 1990s. Call it Hello Spaceboy, maybe?

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