The BBC’s Life on Mars proved to be a huge success in the UK and around the world. This intriguing premise of a cop form 2003 being transported back to 1973 (or was he?) engaged viewers around the world.
Was he in a coma? Did he travel time? Was he abducted by aliens? Is he just plain crazy?
But probably even more so was the show’s spot on cast. John Simm playing our confused cop Sam Tyler made us care about why or what was happening to him after he gets run over on the side of the road. And Philip Glenister commanded the screen as DCI Gene Hunt, owning the character so much that it was impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
The series became so successful, it was only a matter of time before an American version was in works and by no less than David E. Kelley at ABC.
After much behind the scenes drama including the departure of Kelley from the project, ABC’s Life on Mars premiered October 9, 2008.
As with any British series that goes through an across the pond translation, fans of the original were understandably hesitant about the American remake.
But to the pleasant surprise of many, the American Life on Mars managed to hold up well and including many significant American touches even in episodes that were directly adapted from the original British scripts.
A big source of the pre-premiere worry was of course the casting. Who could fill the roles without seeming like a poor man’s version of the original cast?
After ABC called for the complete overhaul of the first pilot (which was not well received even by those who screened it), the series set its five main characters in stone: Jason O’Mara as Sam Tyler, Michael Imperioli as Det. Ray Carling, Gretchen Mol as Officer Annie Norris, Jonathan Murphy as Det. Chris Skelton, and the legendary Harvey Keitel as the American Gene Hunt.
All five fit their roles perfectly and all were able to make their characters distinctly American. But most especially to Harvey Keitel who took Gene Hunt and made him his own. (Now who wouldn’t want to see a Harvey Keitel/Philip Glenister showdown in the future? That would be amazing.)
So, the series premiered to great critical reaction and positive audience feedback. And while it premiered with good numbers, the audience didn’t seem to stick around eventually ending 2008 with ABC putting the series on hiatus from its post-Grey’s Anatomy slot.
It was then announced the series would inherit the post-Lost slot when it returned in late-January, but the numbers still didn’t hold up and ABC notified the show’s producers to wrap up the series and make episode 17 the series finale.
I guess it wasn’t enough of a procedural cop show or enough of a sci-fi show to attract either audience, but we can speculate to why the show didn’t catch on.
But that wasn’t so much a reflection of the quality, I can squarely say. The series did take the tired procedural of today’s television and gave us the life of law enforcement in the 70s complete with an amazing nostalgic soundtrack.
And the guessing and speculation and theories as to what was actually happening with Sam was enough that it gave the series an extra sense of mystery.
From the beginning the show’s producers made it clear they were not going to use the same ending as the UK original.
And they definitely did not.
The series finale “Life is a Rock” managed to answer almost everything, even if it wasn’t in a way many expected.
*(Look away if you have not seen the finale!)*
They were astronauts. On a trip to Mars. That required they be put in neurochambers to keep them alive on their long journey through some sort of virtual reality that was programmed at the start of their journey.
Sam happened to choose 2008 as his vacation spot for their trip to Mars and a malfunction caused by their ship traveling through a meteor field was what caused Sam’s trip back to 1973.
Both 1973 and 2008 were alternate realities. They were all in Sam’s head, part of the virtual reality programmed into the neurochambers before they took off from Earth for Mars.
Quite literally, the show was about finding life on Mars… a “gene hunt” *wink wink* as they say in the final minutes of the series.
The other four crew members (the very same four we’ve seen Sam with in 1973) all had their own realities as well, but probably not as exciting as Sam’s.
And not only that, we learn the Gene Hunt we’ve come to know is in reality Sam’s father, Major Tom (another wink).
One thing though we didn’t get a clear answer on is Sam and Annie. Well, the present (or future?) Sam and Annie that is. In his 1973, Sam decided to stay and not go back to 2008 because of Annie.
Forgetting the big reveal for a second, Sam and Annie’s story, their love developing over the 17 episodes was one of the best things the show managed to do, all culminating in that kiss.
Now, the American crew had a tough task already just adapting it for our shores. But how in the world were they going to end it? They for sure weren’t going to use the original UK ending. And anything else was going to get mixed reactions.
So much kudos to them for coming up with something original, fun, and slightly crazy. But probably most important, it worked. It may not have been the best ending, but it did work and it did finish up the series with a neat little bow.
It is a shame Life on Mars didn’t catch on in the US, but it had a great run anyway. It is always sad to see a good television series not get the attention it deserves, but that’s TV I guess.
Congrats and well done to the entire cast and crew of Life on Mars US. They managed to defy the odds and present a great, fun, enjoyable hour of television.