Television Review Revisited: Life on Mars (US)

How many reviews of *Life on Mars* must a man write in life? If the late, great Douglas Adams is to be believed, 42. So: only 40 to go. The American version, cancelled by ABC, concluded with a 17th episode, lasting one episode more than the BBC series that inspired it. Now that it’s finished, it’s interesting to see how two shows with the same exact premise ended up differing so wildly.

As I said in a comment to [my original review](, a strange thing happened as the British show went on: it became more about Gene Hunt than protagonist Sam Tyler. In fact, Gene became so central to the show that when they concluded the series, they immediately spun him and compatriots Ray and Chris off to [a new show](

By contrast, the US version always kept its focus on Sam and his predicament. Here, Gene is just another supporting character, a piece of the vintage scenery, and though Keitel’s performance grew (and grew on *me*) over the course of the series, Gene never became the same show-stealer that he did at the hands of Philip Glenister (I did appreciate the tip of the hat that the US series creators gave him in a later episode, naming a police bar “Glenister’s”). Keitel did much better when he wasn’t treading in Glenister’s footsteps, allowing the American version of Gene Hunt to become his own character rather than the pale imitation of another man’s performance.

To my biggest surprise, by the end of the series I found myself liking the US version of Ray far more than the original’s. In the British series, Ray always came across as two-dimensional: the dimwit caveman comic relief who acted as Gene’s contemporary counterweight to Sam’s modern-day influence. The US version’s Ray, on the other hand, is a surprisingly complex character: he’s painfully aware that the world he knows is in the process of changing all around him, whether he likes it or not—and he most assuredly does not. I came to enjoy his ribbing of Sam—his constant taunt of “spaceman”—and his complicated relationship with female liberation in the form of Annie.

From a story perspective, the US version also attempted to turn itself into a mythology show in a way that the UK series never did—by comparison, it was more cerebral—a psychodrama. The UK shows always felt very tight, very claustrophobic, somehow conveying an atmosphere that we were all in Sam’s head and it was very much reflected in the way that the show eventually came to a close.

Meanwhile, the US version tried to insert hints of a deeper meaning, of archetypal conflicts between good and evil, light and darkness, and even between father and son. I think that attempt, to make Sam’s struggle *larger* than just himself, is somewhat emblematic of an American storytelling ethic in a way that it isn’t for the British—but perhaps that’s an investigation for another time.

Despite their differences, the shows weren’t totally dissimilar. As both progressed, they became more about the idea of a man out of time than about the mystery of *how* he’d come to be there. We derived our entertainment from the dramatic irony of viewing the past through the lens of our present, while the 1973 inhabitants are stuck in the dark ages. While the ongoing mystery of how Sam came to be in the past was the hook that kept us coming back for more, fed by occasional breadcrumbs scattered through the episodes, it’s not *really* the reason that we tune in. Part of that was, of course, a matter of necessity—for Sam to find out how he’d gotten to the past would have robbed us of our impetus to watch—but part of it was because we, like Sam, start to *like* 1973 a bit more than the present.

And so it’s little surprise to me that the US ending, like its UK counterpart, is a bit of a letdown. In the US case, you can blame it on the show’s premature cancelation—I don’t know if this is the ending they’d planned had they gone for a longer run, and it’s undeniably a bit silly and cutesy—though not entirely in a bad way. I’ll give them credit for this: I sure as hell didn’t see it coming. If nothing else, I applaud the creators with letting their imaginations run wild. As with many serial dramas—[*Battlestar Galactica*]( comes to mind—the real interest in *Life on Mars* turned out to be in its journey, not its destination.