Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Life on Mars (US) - Pilot Remake

Remember this? This was a June entry in this blog, comparing two lines from various makes of the show Life on Mars. The former was from the UK version, starring John Simm, the latter from the US pre-air pilot released over the summer and widely panned.

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

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

This is what I wrote about these two lines, summing up my views on the pre-air episode:

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.

But there's a new contender for this line. Yes, they remade the episode and wrote a new line for this moment in the show. Here's the new lineup:

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

TYLER: I used to get all my CDs here.

SAM TYLER: Wow! My mom used to take me here. I bought my first Hall & Oates album-- er, my, my, first Led Zeppelin album here.

Let's pause for a second to review these lines again, because the gods have indeed been kind to us.

Yes, as evidenced by the above dialogue, this new version of the remake is better than the pre-air. In this new version, the writers fixed many of the problems I noted in my original blog post. Whereas the pre-air was bland, uninspired by the era and muddled the characters in such a way that they lost much of their quality, this new pilot captures more of what made the original UK pilot so excellent.

I've heard it said that the pre-air was much closer to this September pilot script-wise, but I would argue that they are both equally distant. While the pre-air kept many of the exact same lines as the UK version, it seemed to stray exactly in the wrong places, muddling the script so much it seemed . The woman police officer in a man's world Annie lost her moment to be the hero, for example, and it was given to the lead Sam. In the September pilot, the line was returned to Annie, but re-written for her. The words are different, but the important bits are once again the same. The writers, who as far as I can tell are the same fellows who wrote the pre-air, seem to have woken up and the show has woken up again with them.

The writing is only part of the improvement. I wrote before about how I felt nothing evocative from the era to which Sam returns. There was no joy in an era long past but still remembered by so many people. This joy is back- perhaps the transplant of the show to New York opened a few doors in the creators memory. The music of the era once again dominates, the culture is vivid, the camera-work, photography and art direction is more inventive, expansive and full of delicious details.

Here's what I said I would like to see in the remake:
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.
We got all of this. The show was almost ten minutes shorter than the pre-air, getting right to the details with none of the meaningless, slow talk that we saw before. I've already mentioned the increase in details in the writing and the production.

All that remains is the acting and the actors. It was better, even from the lead Jason O'Mara, who was wholly slab-like in the pre-air. The reintroduced details in the script gave everyone, including Jason O'Mara, a little more to cling onto. It is much easier to deliver the first and third lines of dialogue listed above than the middle one. That said, O'Mara still pales in comparison with John Simm's Sam Tyler, as do all the cast, even with the improved script. The only main actor who really seemed to be making the role his own was Harvey Keitel, playing the role of Gene Hunt. Keitel was, like most of the Life on Mars actors, taking over from another actor played in the pre-air by Colm Meaney. Although I preferred the actor playing Annie (Gretchen Mol), I don't think that any of the replacements were necessary. Perhaps the move from Los Angeles to New York played a significant role in which actor were available.

Although this September pilot mostly sticks to the plot of the UK version, there is a small plot change in the way the pilot unfolds, especially towards the end. I didn't mind hugely, except it seemed a little shoddily handled. (An eyebrow-raising key plot detail had to be explained with the the cringeworthy line, "you're not going to believe this, but..."). However, this new show already has several episodes under its belt and needs to tread its own path, even if it means a few missteps at the beginning.

I must say, having three versions of the same television episode made no more than a few years apart is amazing. I doubt it has ever happened before. It is a unique opportunity to really see what makes a show tick and what makes it grind to a halt.

Will I watch more of Life on Mars? Perhaps. For all the improvement on the dire pre-air it has achieved, the US show must make itself stand apart from the UK show before it can truly catch my attention as the original did. The good news is that from what I've heard it has improved, which is a good thing from a reasonably promising beginning.

I just wonder what was going through the writers heads when they wrote that pre-air.

No comments: