Friday, November 07, 2008

Is there Life on Mars?

Thank you, thank you, thank you Great Britain for ensuring that the answer to this post's question is, "Yes." Thank you for a wonderful show.

I can't remember which season of Doctor Who it was, but one of the episodes I downloaded included a commercial for the premiere of this show on BBC. I remember thinking that it looked like a wonderful idea, but I never went out to find any episodes. Like so many shows before it, Life on Mars has found its way onto American shore, remade, recast, recycled (perhaps), but done with care.

For those who aren't watching this show or don't know about it (shame on you!), it involves a New York police detective from 2008 getting into an accident and waking up in 1973. In 1973, he's got a job waiting for him at another precinct and he begins his life there. But is he dead? Was 2008 a dream? What's going on? You get the science fiction and fantasy mixed in the a '70s-era cop drama with one character who has 2008 sensibilities. There's a lot going on here and everything is done well.

This show is absorbing. The acting is brilliant and the storyline is fantastic. Since I missed the original BBC series, I have resisted going out and getting them or reading about plotlines or other discoveries because I don't want to ruin anything. I want to continue to be dazzled by our version's mystique.

The lead character of Sam Tyler is wonderfully portrayed by Jason O'Mara who has been in a lot of stuff that I've never seen. The fact that I don't know him helps me think of him only as the main character, a plus that is not shared by Harvey Kietel's portrayal of his boss, Lt. Gene Hunt. It's very hard for me to see Harvey Keitel and not think of him as the actor (or, rather, the past roles he's played), instead of his character. But, in the context of this show, that's a good thing. He's Bad Lieutenant and here he's a bad ass lieutenant. Keitel, while probably too identifiable to pull off something like this in more nuanced work, is fantastic in the larger-than-life role of Gene Hunt. His reputation just adds to the myth behind the guy.

Back to O'Mara though ... the role of Sam requires the ability to be both the hero and the watcher. You know, he's a man out of his own time so he, at times has to sit back and let everything happen around him. Yet he's also the star of this show so he has to step up and keep everything moving. O'Mara pulls this off effortlessly. This could have easily not have been the case. I am reminded of a particular author who loves her creations too much to ever allow them to come to much harm. This author always has her main character drive the plot. Everything is because of her -- either her doing or because things are being done about her. It works on one level, but after a while you begin to wonder if there's any life outside of this one character. You can see how Life on Mars could be that way, yet here's Sam Tyler, he's a star and a watcher who just happens to be there and there's all this stuff that's going on around him. Sure, there's stuff that's going on because of him also, but that's just part of the bigger picture. Writers, actors, director and producers deserve a lot of credit for pulling this off as well as they have.

And it was a concerted effort on their part to pull this off so well. The U.S. version had cut a pilot and ABC decided to recast all of the roles, save O'Mara as Sam, and rewrite some of the underlying ambiguity out, according to Wikipedia's entry on the show. That they have been able to make such a good show gives me hope that Hollywood's still got some tricks up their sleeves, even if it means adapting British shows for our country.

The show obviously borrows on concepts and shows that have before. Most obviously, I think, is Quantum Leap, heck, the main character's even named Sam. There is somewhat of a "sliding through time" kind of feeling. There’s also the displacement feelings you get with Lost and some of the flashes of things that are out of place or are anachronistic. There is also enough death imagery and other flashes that make you think of Jacob’s Ladder and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. But what’s really going on here is unknown, at least to the U.S. audience.

Lastly, the understated performance by Gretchen Mol as Annie “No Nuts” Norris is another thing to add to the list of great things about this show. I’ve been a fan of Mol’s since her performance in The Notorious Bettie Page but hadn’t seen much of her since. It’s great to see her here and to see her display her versatility.

It’s quickly become my favorite thing on TV right now. The only problem is that it’s only an hour long and it only comes on once a week.

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