A review - and a long post

I watched Life On Mars.

I was going to sleep on my thoughts and re-watch the show tomorrow with both the old David Kelley script and the original BBC script open on my laptop. But I don't think I need to. And I don't think I can sleep until I get this all written out anyway.

I'm going to compare the series to the BBC version. And somewhat to the Kelley version that DIDN'T wind up on your screens tonight. I know that's not really a review. But there are going to be a million reviews out there. I'm more interested in figuring out what the heart of the original series was, where the ABC version -- or the Kelley version - got it wrong. And where they fixed things, got them right, or even improved them. Cause that's what we try to do as writers. Figure out what's important. Make mistakes, sure, but then figure out WHY they're wrong. And desperately try to fix them before the cameras roll. (Or in this case, after. Yeesh.)

The teaser begins in the modern world...

The BBC version took a lot more time establishing Sam's modern life. That's easier for them to do, of course, they HAVE more time. But it was nice to show how different, and technological, and politically correct police work is now versus was then. It was also nice to see Sam Tyler as the clear and decisive head of his unit, as problems will ensue when he is subordinate to Gene Hunt in the past.

So, score one point for the BBC. But a very small point.

I don’t dig the it-wasn’t-the-perp-it-was-his-identical twin stuff. I never like the identical twin trick. (After reading something similar in the Fringe pilot script I have yet to bring myself to actually watch the Fringe episodes on my DVR.) And unless they’re varying significantly from the BBC plot, it’s also not necessary. So that’s score two for the BBC. (Oops, writing now from the end: they DID change the plot significantly. I’m rethinking as I type. The score may change. Stay tuned.)

Continuing on…

WHOA. ABC has a MUCH BETTER TEASER FADE OUT. I cried. Couldn’t help it: a stunning revelation of the Twin Towers standing, new, beautiful and full of hope, beats a billboard for an expressway overpass any day. BIG point scored for ABC.

The 360-degree “only so many details” shot of 1973 lower Manhattan was nearly equally stunning. Awesome set decoration. The Manchester shot was great too, so I’ll give that a tie. (Though I’m from New York and I’ve never been to Manchester, so the ABC version edges ahead for me.)

Moving into the meat of the show…

I loved the BBC’s Gene Hunt, Philip Glenister. But now I love Harvey Keitel just as much. I gotta score a dead tie there. But I’m going to give an extra point to ABC for realizing they had it wrong the first time, firing the original actor, thinking of Harvey Keitel and making that happen. Nothing against poor Colm Meaney. I’m sure he’s a fine actor, but the only thing he had going for him as Gene Hunt was a slight physical resemblance to Mr. Glenister. And I’m tired of that kind of casting.

Actually, I think the Colm Meaney casting was part of a more serious problem with Kelley's whole take on the series.

Kelley’s script's theme seemed to be: modern-day people like Sam (and us) are better, more competent and more moral than their benighted 1973 counterparts. Always. In every case. In his script, Sam Tyler is a saint and Gene Hunt is an evil joke. No way Harvey Keitel would ever have taken the part as written in Kelley's script. And no way I'd watch it for very long. "I'm right and you're wrong" just doesn't make for a very interesting show.

So what was the BBC show about? Duh. It's a BUDDY COP show. Straight up. Two completely different guys from completely different backgrounds (and ERAS) who HATE each other right off will eventually grudgingly accept that each one has something the other lacks and together they will make one amazing policeman. This is not earth-shattering. We've seen this show before. And it worked before. Hell, MOST SUCCESSFUL DRAMA includes some element of this-one's-partially-right and that-one's-partially-right and if they could only figure that out and get together... Okay, not just drama. Most rom-coms and comedies work on some version of that dynamic. Most of our RELATIONSHIPS in the real world work like that. Or don't. Maybe because, like Mr. Kelley, we're a little too hung-up on our own perfection.

Pats on the back are nice, but do not make for appointment television.

The BBC version accepted that many things ARE better now. Miranda warnings are a good thing. Videotaped interviews are a good thing. So are warrants, and lawyers (sometimes), and all that pc stuff. But the BBC show worked on the principle that, though Sam was usually technically right, Gene was always EMOTIONALLY right. With all of his sensitivity training, the modern cop is less in touch with his “feelings” than his 70s macho counterpart. Gene Hunt has much to learn from Sam Tyler. But Sam Tyler has just as much to learn from Gene Hunt.

And there’s your series.

And this new ABC version gets that. Somebody at the studio saw the Kelley version, said "hold on a minute" and made the fix. Some studio suit. Who is that guy? I want to work for that guy. And I’m having to rethink my whole position on studio notes.

Which brings us to the scene that made me stand up and cheer. In the original BBC version of the Mrs. Raimes interview, Sam – eyes on the investigation – doesn’t see that his justifiably intense questioning of the witness is NOT HELPING. So Gene steps in, gets the woman a cup of tea and a biscuit. Gets her to relax and chat. And gets the information they need.

In the Kelley version, evil Gene is bullying poor Mrs. Raines, and Mr. Perfect Modern Cop Sam steps in to save the day. Oh, and there’s a cutesy lawyer thing that made me want to hurl. (Note to David Kelley: NOT a lawyer show.) So, yet again: 70s Gene is wrong, modern Sam is right, and we are all better than our parents. Woo-hoo. And yawn.

In the new ABC version, they go back almost word for word to the BBC version. Down to the fabulous over-the-table-leap at the end of the scene where we see Gene and Sam are suddenly, finally a team that WORKS. Together.

I stood up and cheered at that shot when I saw it the first time on BBC America. And I stood up and cheered tonight again. So, I give this scene a tie.

But for fixing something that was terribly wrong, at great expense and risk of negative publicity (how often does THAT happen in Hollywood???) I give extra points to ABC. And again, to that miracle suit. Who IS that guy?

And then suddenly we’re at the end. All kinds of stuff from the BBC version is just gone. And the scene – that never really rang true – where Annie’s ex-boyfriend tries to get Sam to risk suicide as a way to “wake up” – has been replaced with Sam staring down a gun and misreading (maybe…) the killer’s ramblings as a suicidal way out of his nightmare. So much better. Color me impressed.

And then the BIG change. There was a marvelous scene in the BBC version where Sam is faced with a choice: betray his ideals and destroy a key piece of evidence, or pass the evidence on, knowing that it will allow the killer to go free in 30 years and take the woman Sam loves hostage. Sam makes the choice: he trashes the evidence. And Gene says: welcome to the team. And he doesn’t mean it in a good way. He means it in a Faustian way.

It’s a killer scene. And it’s just gone. The kid, Colin Raimes, becomes the modern-day killer instead. Hence the whole awkward (but apparently now necessary) twin thing.

And I’m okay with that.

Because this is an American series that is going to have to sustain 22 episodes a year, possibly for years. As opposed to a British series that will be over and out in two series of 8 episodes each.

We have plenty of time to watch Sam struggle with difficult choices. We have hours and hours and hours ahead. (I hope - were you watching? Watch.)

At the end of the episode, instead of a killer all neatly tied up, we now have a future serial killer running around as a red-headed tyke. Creepy stuff to mine in episodes to come. As is having Sam consider killing that child instead of just destroying evidence...

So I take away my earlier demerits. And I call this a tie. I know my math is off - but I do have to give the BBC version points for being ORIGINAL. Besides, a tie is a win for ABC, 'cause after reading the Kelley version, I NEVER thought a tie would be possible.

I’m excited to see what they do next. And where they go when they’ve run through the sixteen British episodes and have a chance to stretch (or tank) this thing on their own.

I'm excited. Which I haven't been much so far this season...

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