Friday, October 10, 2008

We Aren’t In Kansas Anymore

Every so often you get surprised by a show. Usually it's a bad surprise. Maybe it's a show that you expected (hoped) would be great turned out to be a steaming pile of poo. Sometime a creator whose previous work you loved and respected disappoints you. Yeah I'm talking about you Aaron Sorkin – I like Studio 60 more and more the more I see of the shows that have come after it on NBC but it was no West Wing...or Sports Night...or The American President...or A Few Good Men. Occasionally though you get a show that you don't really expect much from and it hits a home run with you. That's how I feel about the new ABC version of Life On Mars.

There were a lot of indicators that Life On Mars was going to be a ticking time bomb. It was an adaptation of a British series, and how many of those make the transition well. For every The Office there's a couple of Couplings hiding in the weeds. The British series was definitely a quirky one that had a cult following in North America. Does Blackpool which became Viva Las Vegas ring some bells with you fine people? The Internet buzz on the show wasn't great. A lot of people posting in response to the original YouTube clips that ABC released were screaming at how awful the American version was when compared with the British series, and some of the professional critics that I respect had low feelings about the new series. Worst of all, the show went through a thorough recasting, with only the original lead actor being retained from the original pilot of the show – the one that the clips came from. Even the city changed, with production and location moving from Los Angeles to New York, "to allow producers to take advantage of recently enacted local and state tax credits for shows filmed in that state." Under most circumstances these factors would spell DOA even while the blood was still pumping through the victim.

You know what though? I think it works. Maybe it's because I've never seen the BBC version – it was on BBC Canada but I never managed to be free while it was on – but there was a moment when the show hooked me and I was drawn in. I'm pretty much convinced though that a big part of what makes it work for me is the recasting and moving the show from Los Angeles to New York. For once I think that a network decision actually did what these decisions are meant to do – make the show better. Of course I've only seen the pilot episode. Subsequent episodes might totally destroy the feeling that I have for the show, but after this episode they've got me.

We're first introduced to detective Sam Tyler and his partner Maya Daniels as they are racing to the home of a suspected serial killer. We quickly learn that Sam and Maya are involved with each other against departmental regulations, and that Sam is afraid of people finding out that they're together. They managed to capture the killer, Collin Raimes, who has been holding his victims for 30 hours before killing them. However, although they have considerable evidence against him, including a diary, the Raimes's lawyer is able to supply a security camera DVD from a casino in Atlantic City that seems to prove that the man was there shooting craps all night at the time the latest victim was taken. Maya continued to track Raimes on her own (against orders) after his release, until she disappears. All they find is a blood stained sweater she was wearing. It is only then that the detectives discover that Raimes had an identical twin brother and that he was the one that the security cameras recorded. It's as he is frantically trying to get to Raimes's apartment that Sam is hit by a speeding car, seemingly coming out of nowhere as David Bowie's song "Life on Mars" plays on his iPod.

It's at that point that the real story begins. Sam comes to, apparently to the sound of "Life on Mars" but we know before he does that something is radically different. Sam is now wearing a leather jacket and a different shirt and pair of pants than he was before. He very quickly is made aware of his surroundings by a beat cop who tells him that he can't park here. What's he's parked is an orange muscle car (to my untutored eyes a Plymouth Roadrunner). "Life on Mars" is playing off an eight track tape. The apartment building where the suspect lived hasn't been built yet. But most of all, standing tall proud and seemingly indestructible are the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Not knowing what else to do, Sam makes his way to the precinct where he worked in 2008. The outside's the same, but the inside confuses Sam a lot. Still the people there seem to be expecting Sam, their new transfer. Still things are very disorienting for Sam, particularly the lack of a desk and computer for him (the other cops get a great kick out of him expecting a computer – like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey?) but his actions rouse the precinct's Lieutenant, Gene Hunt. Hunt is not happy at being roused out of his sleep by the new guy and proceeds to give him a bit of a beating before turning him over to the lone woman in the squad, Policewoman Annie Norris, known as "No Nuts" to the men in the squad. Annie listens to his story about being from 2008 with more than a little incredulity, although without the ridicule that the others heap on him. There isn't much time for Sam to settle in. He's almost immediately thrust into a murder case that has similarities to the case he was working on in 2008. Still the slowness of the 1973 system works against him. Fingerprints take two weeks to process, and the cops in the precinct think that it's amazing what they can do these days. When Sam tries to get Annie to help in psychologically profiling the killer – she has a degree in psychology – the other cops regard it as gobbled-gook while Annie is mad at him for drawing attention to her because it subjects her to ridicule. When Sam hears The Who's "Baba O'Riley" from a record store (he gets to explain to Annie about CDs and MP3 players and how the sound is ... not as good as this, this being vinyl) he finds a key piece of evidence, artificial fibre used as sound-proofing for a listening booth in the record store. Another bit of evidence comes into focus when an investigation that Sam instigated when he mentions Collin Raimes's name leads to a complaint filed by a woman named Raimes against one of her neighbours. They bring the woman into the precinct but initially she seems more interested in the coffee and cookies than in helping the cops. Finally Gene persuades her to help by bringing in some pricey Italian pastries. It seems that Mrs. Raimes – who has twin grandsons – has a neighbour who played his stereo too loud. The cops hadn't done much about the complaint but what they had done seems to have helped because she doesn't hear his music anymore. With that bit of information Sam and Gene head for the apartment building. Gene kicks the door open – without a warrant, another change from 2008 – and they find the soundproof room where the man, Willie Kramer, is holding his most recent victim still alive. Chasing Willie to a cluttered storeroom Sam is ambushed by him and loses his gun. Willie holds the gun on Sam and says something about it being the "only way to get back." Sam is certain that Willie means that the only way for Sam to get out of whatever state he's in and back to his 21st century life (and Maya) is for Willie to shoot him. Sam comes closer and closer to Willie until the muzzle of the gun is firmly in his chest, but Willie doesn't pull the trigger. Just then Gene and Ray Carling break into the store room and arrest Willie – and then after the cuffs are on him punch him at least once. They don't need to, they just want to.

Sam does not adjust well to his new world. At one point he says he wants to "follow the Yellow Brick Road" until it ends; to just keep going until the point where his mind can no longer produce the "reality" of the 1970s, which he believes might be a way for him to return to his real life. At various points during the episode Sam seems to be in contact with that real life. In the police squad room he hears the sounds of paramedics trying to revive him. In the apartment has been rented for him, and where "his" stuff has been unpacked by Annie, as he sits watching a late night science show, the professor on the TV suddenly stops talking about the sides of a triangle and starts talking about the status of the patient's mind, including how his mind may in fact be in some sort of alternate reality. Finally, as he is talking to the child version of Colin Raimes – a boy who idolized Willie Kramer because Willie wasn't afraid of anything – Sam hears the voice of Maya over the car radio, reassuring him that she is safe and asking him to come back to her. Sam had considered turning the gun on himself as his way to get back to Maya, but in talking to Colin about Willie and how fear is something that should be embraced because it protects us and keeps us alive he seems to decide that maybe he should stay in 1973 for a while. Perhaps it is knowing that Maya is safe presumably removes some of the urgency, particularly since he can't be entirely sure that his interpretation of what Willie said is correct. In this at least his own fear – fear that dying in this reality might just mean that he dies in his "real" reality – keeps him from trying to find out once his greater fear, that not taking the chance will mean that Maya is going to die, is removed from the equation.

The casting for this series seems absolutely spot on, with one or two possible exceptions. Even though some people have said that Harvey Keitel is too old to play Gene Hunt – presumably based on the age of the actor who played the character in the original British series – he's a perfect fit for the role of the boss who is both brutish and doesn't give a rat's ass for the rules. And yet he has moments where he's almost charming. He knows how to handle innocent people as seen by the way he treats Mrs. Raimes. We don't see too much of the other two main detectives in this episode – clean-cut and somewhat green Chris Skelton (Jonathon Murphy), and shaggy and dishevelled Ray Carling (Michael Imerioli) – except as they ridicule the ideas of their somewhat strange new squad member. The major female role of Annie "No Nuts" Norris is played by Gretchen Mol who manages to catch the look of an early 1970s conformist quite well. While Annie's clearly unwilling to accept what Sam is telling her about the future she at least seems more sympathetic to him than the men in the squad. Moreover Annie is trying very hard to make Sam accept that he is where he is and the reality of it. Annie is the portrait of the early 1970s woman; not an equal with men in her job but still accomplished and ready to be taken into that world, even if she isn't totally accepted by it. I have some worries about Jason O'Mara as Sam Tyler if only because so much of the structure of the show rests on him playing a man struggling to cope with a situation not of his own creation.

For me the big thing though was the setting. The moment that I mentioned that hooked me on this series was the scene where Sam looks up and sees the World Trade Center intact. It was the perfect way to not only set us in the time frame of the show but also to make Sam realise the absolute foreignness of his experience. I don't think it's something you could do with another location. What place in Los Angeles could serve as that sort of reference point for the character and for the viewer? I can't think of one. And it seems to me that New York in the early 1970s is the perfect place for this. The city was both cosmopolitan and somewhat faded in its glories. It was just a few years after the Stonewall Riots and faced ongoing racial tensions. It would only be a few years later that the headline in the New York Daily News would say "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Most of all the New York Police in this period were notorious for their methods, and were recovering from the after-effects of the Knapp Commission, which had not fully weeded out the department's bad apples. While the British version of Life On Mars used Manchester – Britain's third largest city – as its setting rather than London, it is difficult to imagine any other city where this series being set and certainly not Los Angeles.

My feelings about Life On Mars are somewhat conditional. As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, I'm not always happy reviewing a series based on the pilot episode if only because the pilot is frequently a standout episode that doesn't show you what the series will really be like. Character development and really solid writing are going to be key to the show's ongoing success. This is true of all TV shows of course but in this one it is particularly important. The series got off to a sound start but among the concerns has to be how long this concept can be sustained. The original British series only ran for 16 episodes after all, just slightly less than a basic order for most American dramas that don't get a "back nine." That's how far the British though the concept could be stretched. The worst thing that could happen to this show is for it to degenerate into a bog standard police procedural where the "gimmick" is that the show is set in 1973 rather than 2008. I think that's a real fear as the show goes on. At the same time it can't constantly emphasis Sam as a fish out of water. For me the essential aspect of this show is Sam's journey as he integrates himself into his "new world," probably to a point where he's unsure about going back to his reality when the opportunity presents itself. Still if the writers, producers and actors can maintain the standards of the pilot episode I think they've got something truly intriguing with this series. A strong, if somewhat provisional, recommendation from me.

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