Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review: Life on Mars (US) - Pre-Air Pilot

I loved the UK Life on Mars so when I heard there was a pre-air floating around of the US Life on Mars, airing this fall, I snagged it immediately. I thought it would be fun to watch the two together and compare them.

This has minor spoilers on what I consider well-known facts about the show, and a few vague dialogue and character references.

I’m afraid that compared with the sparkling UK show, the US one loses much and adds (almost) nothing to make up for it. The result is a lacklustre copy that leaves you wondering exactly who thought it would be such a good idea to remake, and what exactly they had in mind when they suggested it.

I’ve heard that two of the cast, Colm Meaney (of Star Trek: TNG fame), playing Detective Gene Hunt, and Rachelle Lefevre playing Annie Cartwright, are going to be recast. I’m not sure why this is happening, since they were not the major problem in the episode. The writing was poor, the directing was lacking and Jason O'Mara, playing the main character Detective John Simm, was by far the weakest of the cast.

First of all, if you’re familiar with the UK version, you’ll recognise the plot of the US version. All of the major plot elements are the same, down to, in many cases, the physical attributes of the characters. The setting is LA, rather than Manchester.

However, the US Life on Mars has lost the sharp, slick writing, plot, character development and attention to detail that the UK show immediately demonstrated. In the UK show, which is a whole eight minutes longer than the US version, it takes six or so minutes to get to the moment Sam Tyler time-travels. The US version takes almost twice as long. What is in this extended period of time you ask? Talking about what they’re going to do before doing it. Shoddy conversation presumably intended to develop character. Longer, indistinct fight scenes.

This delay characterizes the pilot in general. What the writers appear to have done is lost details and certain interesting bits of the plot and instead of replacing them with country-appropriate moments of interest, it simply skips them. In order to get up to an average American pilot length (51 minutes), events are slowed down, conversations are longer, scenes flow together in a more languid way. Contrary to popular belief, fight scenes do not build excitement.

For some reason, the dialogue and character development has suffered peculiarly. Although of the dialogue has survived somewhat intact, it is often it is modified or given to another character. In a previous post I argued that this is a good way to adapt, but in this case, the same scene with the same characters exist but the dialogue is exchanged, resulting in less well or re-defined characters. For example: Instead of the main character Sam Tyler being wrong, he is instead made right and the girlfriend (with the tinned characteristic of “spunky”) gets to be wrong. Instead of her getting herself into danger, he sends her into danger. Presumably this is intended to give the character more guilt over what happens, but him being right and then also being responsible for her wholly undermines her character.

This switching of dialogue roles occurs again later on, again resulting in a bit of a muddle. Generally, the main character is given more ‘hero’ moments, instead of being complicated, and showing his intelligence in using other people’s expertise. The character of Annie Cartwright, supposedly the woman in a men’s world who is allowed by the more modern Sam Tyler to show her intelligence, is reduced to spinning camera and romantic music while Detective Tyler gets to answer the question again. (This very much annoyed me.) The choice of actor doesn’t help: Jason O’Mara is a bit of a slab, without the bright-eyed intelligence and nuanced performance given by the less-hunky John Simm.

Two characters from the UK version- the rookie and the enemy- are missing from the US version, and their absence makes the show even sparser. The only new character was an embattled lawyer, who actually introduced a little interest to the show, but his appearances were minimal.

And then there’s the modification of dialogue. Compare these two lines, occurring at the same point in the story, when seeing a familiar music store:

SAM TYLER: I used to come here. I bought my first… Gary Numan. ‘Cars’.

SAM TYLER: I used to get all my CDs here.

The first line is the UK pilot, and John Simm is peering through the stained record shop window in delight (the camera inside the store behind dirty glass, Annie in the background and records in the foreground visible). The second is delivered by Jason O’Hara while crossing the road after seeing the store.

I don’t even know where to start with these two lines. The first is precise, human, delighted with the memory, evocative, and harkens back to another era, if not quite this one. It reveals detail about the character.

The second is boring, entirely uninventive, vague, and perhaps refers to the very first years of the 21st century, when Sam bought ‘his CDs’. I understand that the choice of artist might need to be different, as may the language used to express the sentiment, but that doesn’t mean that a slick, fat line can be replaced by a shoddy thin one. The lines were there for the adapters (Josh Appelbaum, AndrĂ© Nemec and Scott Rosenberg) to see. They turned a fat line into one there purely for plot purposes.

It is also the director’s fault. His work is also un-evocative. This show is a chance to lovingly reproduce an era that many of his viewers may remember. It might be a chance to bring a new generation into his audience. And yet he does not deliver with this nostalgia. I’m surprised, because the director, Thomas Schlamme, is one who was heavily involved in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The West Wing, both of which I like very much. Thinking about it, both of those shows required much indoor shooting- corridors, rooms, offices etc. Life on Mars is more scenic and those scenic moments is when I noticed the directing lacking.

All in all, I found comparing these two shows a fascinating opportunity. The same plot, reproduced with different writers, cast and crew? Delicious. Sadly, the comparison was not a positive one for the new Life on Mars. Almost every aspect of the US pilot fared poorly. The writing was slow, empty, thin and confused. The directing did not make use of the era, and was not as slick as I would expect. None of the actors shone, although perhaps they were held down by the shoddy dialogue and character development. O’Hara was particularly uninspiring.

What I would like to see: A slicker, wittier, more evocative, far more compact, more detailed and more nuanced performance from the writers and cast, and more expansive, scene-sensitive work from the director.

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