Congratulations, ABC — after two attempts, and spending squillions of dollars, you finally managed to copy British cult classic Life On Mars pretty well. At least, compared to the sheer horror that was the original pilot, the version of Mars that finally aired last night was much better, and closer to the UK version. With one or two important differences. The real test will come next week, when the show has to start turning a Brit miniseries into a show that goes on and on. I honestly think I'm grading on a curve here. Maybe that was the strategy all along: leak a pilot that's so horrendously scalp itchingly awful, you'll be overjoyed at whatever the finished product turns out to be. But actually, I think firing David E. Kelley (Boston Legal) and bringing on a new team really did help somewhat. As did firing almost all of the cast and bringing in A-list replacements Harvey Keitel, Lisa Bonet, Michael Imperioli and Gretchen Mol. Most of all, the new pilot was better simply because it was closer to the original British version.
As in the British version, Sam Tyler is a detective in the present day, whose colleague and (ex) girlfriend Maya has just been kidnapped by a psychopath who strangles women. Then he's hit by a car and suddenly finds himself in the early 1970s. Is he in a coma, or did he really travel back? We're not sure, despite hints that he really is in a coma. And a serial killer with uncanny similarities to the one who snatched Maya in the present starts grabbing women back in 1973. So Tyler has to learn to work with the troglodyte-esque cops of 1973 to catch the serial killer in the past, hoping this will change Maya's fate in the present. So here's the scene featured above as it played out in the original British version. You'll notice the flow of the scene is pretty similar. A disoriented Sam Tyler wanders into his office at the police headquarters, meets his new colleagues, and then starts yelling at them about his missing desk. And then he wakes up Gene Hunt, who kicks his ass. It's a great scene, and it works quite well in both versions. And then here's the same scene from the original unaired pilot, where Gene Hunt is played by Star Trek's Colm Meaney instead of Harvey Keitel. (Sorry for the dark picture, I don't know how that happened.) You can see it's basically a mess. O'Mara isn't channeling John Simm's portrayal nearly as much, and that turns out to be a bad thing. Also, they rewrote the scene so that Sam Tyler looks like a raving lunatic way more than in the British version. And he tells everyone in the room that he thinks it's 2007. There's no way these cops would ever take him seriously after the way he behaves in this scene. The original, and final, versions of the scene are a little more subtle, and establish that Tyler is stuck in 1973 without burning any bridges. The new version of the pilot made some changes from the Brit version that actually made sense. Like instead of trying to do the whole business where some random bit character tells Sam Tyler to kill himself and he climbs up on a roof, we have a nice simple scene where the serial killer threatens him at gunpoint and he decides to let the guy shoot. That actually works pretty well. Maya is no longer Sam's ex-girlfriend, she's his girlfriend, which adds a nice bit of urgency and sets up a love triangle involving Lisa Bonet and Gretchen Mol. Not a bad thing really.
Also — and I know this is blasphemous — but I actually liked Gretchen Mol's version of Annie a bit more than the original. she brought a nice fire to the character. And the way she was pissed at Sam for putting her in the spotlight felt real and honest. Making her a "closet feminist" totally makes sense and gives the character someplace interesting to go over the next season. A few changes are absolutely hideous, but won't affect the show going forward that much. Like the weird and convenient way some guy shows up to tell us Colin Raimes has a twin brother. It feels very plot-hammery. And the sudden announcement at the end of the episode that Maya is okay. As if it would have killed us to have a little suspense here. But the real huge issue, of course, is... Harvey Keitel, OMG. The big time movie star in a supporting role on a time travel cop show! How did he do? He did okay. It honestly felt like he was dialing it in a lot of the time. He looked a bit bored. Maybe because he was just copying Philip Glenister's performance, and he'll get more original material soon. But it felt as though he was literally doing this in his sleep at times.
Large chunks of the episode were copied note-for-note from the British version, and I actually felt like Jason O'Mara was doing a John Simm impression in a lot of scenes. Which was way better than what Jason O'Mara did in the original pilot — but it makes me wonder what he'll do when he doesn't have a Simm performance to crib from. His scene towards the end where he tries to lecture the kid version of Colin Raimes about how "fear keeps us honest" was pretty hammy, but at least it was fun to watch. Really, you can't judge this show until next week, or maybe a few weeks from now. All this first episode had to do was live up to the British version, and it was going to be fine. The real challenge will come when the show tries to turn a show that lasted 16 episodes into an ongoing series that can sustain seven seasons worth of plots and character development. Based on last night, I'm at least optimistic that the show's producers have their hearts in the right places. But it really remains to be seen if their heads are in the right locations as well. Oh, and I don't really have anything to say about the Twin Towers showing up a couple of times. It didn't bug me, but it also didn't seem wow-gosh-important either. What did you think about it?