October 10, 2008

Life on Mars, New York Style

By Guy Adams

Life on Mars is the latest in a spate of British programmes to cross the Atlantic - and it has gone down a storm, reports Guy Adams

The cars are bigger. New York looks even meaner than the squalid- yet-homely Manchester where DCI Sam Tyler first woke up after being mysteriously transported back to 1973. But the sideburns have stayed more or less the same.

America got its first taste of Life on Mars last night, as the BBC's nostalgic cop show became the latest British TV hit to be re- modelled for a transatlantic audience, transporting viewers to Manhattan's tough East Village at the time when hair was long, lapels were wide, and police brutality came as standard.

The show's heavily-advertised premiere marked one of the biggest new drama launches of the autumn season. In addition to a prime- time slot on the ABC network, it boasted big production budgets and an all-star cast led by Harvey Keitel, in his debut TV drama appearance.

On the evidence of the pilot episode, it will stay doggedly true to the UK original.

About three-quarters of the dialogue has remained the same, and the plot, in which a present-day detective is hit by a car and wakes up 25 years earlier, is almost identical.

Critics say the comic success of both versions of Life on Mars hinges on social and technological differences between the 1970s and the present day. In addition to period clothes and cars - which star in plenty of chase scenes - the programme brings to life an era when police work was done via rotary telephone and typewriters.

"Aesthetically, Life on Mars is to the 1970s what Mad Men is to the early 1960s," said The New York Times, which declared the programme's debut "strange and exhilarating", adding: "It is a drama festooned with vintage artefacts like eight-track tapes, sideburns, wide-collar shirts and episodes of Kojak, and saturated with music by the Rolling Stones, The Who and David Bowie."

Although viewing figures will not become available until the weekend, the imported show has already been highly acclaimed by most critics, who have been starved of their usual quota of new drama series thanks to the writers' strike which effectively shut down production for much of the spring.

USA Today deemed Life on Mars "one of the best hours of new TV this fall", while Variety said the show was "splendidly cast, handsomely produced, and conceptually intriguing". The Hollywood Reporter deemed the plot "exciting enough to make you swallow the premise and beg for more".

Many pundits applauded the performance of Keitel and his fellow star Michael Imperioli, best known as Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos. The lead role of Sam Tyler, played by John Simm in the UK version, has been given to a little known Irish actor called Jason O'Mara.

The new show had a slightly tortured path to America's screens. The original pilot was set in Los Angeles, but was scrapped for both aesthetic reasons and the tax breaks offered to TV companies prepared to film in New York. Many have now noted that its launch is ironically timed, given that America's current difficulties - economic turmoil, high oil prices and growing unemployment - feel like a throwback to the 1970s.

Several other British programmes have also been re-made for American TV audiences lately, including American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and The Office. This week, NBC Universal bought Carnival, a UK production company, for more than $50m (30m), in a move expected to herald a further rash of imports. Meanwhile Fox announced it had bought rights to remake Absolutely Fabulous, the BBC show starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, which failed in a previous reincarnation for US viewers during the 1990s.

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