As I’ve written a couple of times before, one of my favorite TV shows of the past few years was Life on Mars, the BBC show that was part sci-fi, part retro detective show and fully weird.
However, it never got much traction here: BBC America didn’t promote it like they’ve done with Torchwood or Robin Hood — both of which are shows that are much easier to define — and the death knell came when they literally buried the second season in December.
Which was too bad, because the second season built on the trippiness of the first and ended in a way that was near-perfect in its combination of melancholy, ambiguity and finality.
Despite all of that, it’s always been on target for a remake on American TV. Given that science fiction concepts have been somewhat popular on the networks lately (despite the fact that show after show that has sprung up in the wake of Lost and Heroes — Invasion, Journeyman, Jericho, Moonlight — has bombed either critically or commercially), I guess that a U.S. remake was inevitable.
Since it was announced, I’ve always worried that it was going to end up being more Coupling than The Office, and when a trailer surfaced on io9 a couple of weeks ago, it certainly didn’t make me worry any less.
One one hand, Lenny Clarke and Colm Meany are inspired choices — though there is almost no way that the lead guy is going to pale in comparison to John Simm’s inspired take on Sam Tyler — and of course it’s impossible to tell from a trailer, but one of the things that made the original series so interesting was how it was a meditation on how much the world changes in just our lifetime, and how we automatically assume that things now are how they’ve always been, even when we know that’s not possible.
In other words, it wasn’t just about “ha ha, stupid 1972 cops don’t know what DNA is.” It was much deeper than that: Sam Tyler had to learn all about a world that he assumed he knew from heart.
Oh by the way, if you’ve seen any of the quick promos that ABC is currently showing during the NBA Playoffs, you’ll notice that the song in the background is a KC and the Sunshine Band song from 1974, so we haven’t even hit the first episode and already, they can’t even get their period music right.
Wait until they all head off to see Jaws!
But all of this, of course, is just the ABC promo monkeys. We all know that the aim of the promo departments of any TV network is to mislead viewers into watching a show, and it’s entirely possible that the show might be good.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure about that, and here are some reasons why:
First off, according to a recent article in the LA Times, the original producer of the series has recently left, and someone new is taking over.
That’s usually not a good sign, even when the original producer was David E. Kelley, who just might be the single most overrated showrunner working in TV today. By my calculations, which are admittedly imprecise, there was a 97.6384% chance that Kelley would totally ignore everything that made the original so sublime and turn it into a straight procedural, with jokes about the difference between the past and the future.
So while Kelley’s leaving any show is nominally a good thing for that show, in this case, not so much, because — according to the Times — nobody knows what the hell is going on:
ABC hired the team of producers responsible for the flop drama “October Road” to take over the mission to “Mars.” The producers and network executives are now having a series of meetings to figure out what to do next. Will the Kelley pilot stay or go? Will the show be recast? “That’s what’s being discussed now,” one source told me Thursday, referring to all of these creative issues. “I don’t think any answers have been reached.”
This just kills me. The show is on the ABC fall schedule — the only new drama — but nobody knows anything except for the title and an increasingly fuzzy version of the concept. At this point, even if they got Rob Thomas or Joss Whedon involved, I’d be worried.
And that’s not even the biggest worry I have about the remake. Nope, I think that the biggest worry I have involves the very nature of this series, and why I don’t think it will ever fully work on American TV: the endgame. As in the fact that the BBC version of Life on Mars was always working towards one. There was a specific mystery to solve — is Sam Tyler dead, in a coma or a time-traveler? — and they gave us an answer, all the while teasing us with surreal glimpses from the inside of Sam’s mind.
The open-ended nature of American series TV means that we really can’t have an answer, and the teases won’t even make any sense if we know that they won’t solve the mystery any time soon. I fear that the only way this could work is if the producers work out a specific end date, like the Lost producers did.
That ain’t going to happen. What I predict will happen is this: they’ll put out something that is interesting and near-good just on pure script momentum, and it will very quickly sink into an Iraq-like quagmire, where every single plot will be essentially the same as every other plot. CSI: 1972.
The audience will quickly lose interest, and in the end, Life on Mars will be a punchline like Coupling, a great show whose reputation has been forever damaged over here because of the brutally awful NBC remake.
So given all of this, and the problems that they are already having, I think that ABC should just cut their losses give up on Life on Mars now, while it will only be embarrassing to them, and not tarnish the BBC series.
Instead, I suggest that they should and try to remake another BBC show — something open-ended and simplistic.
Like maybe Torchwood or Robin Hood?