Saturday, August 8, 2009

Catching up with the British "Life on Mars"

Unlike some of the other folks who cover television, I did not spent the past week or so at the high-profile Television Critic Association conference in Pasadena. Though it's sad to not be in the thick of things (particularly with Paula Abdul dropping out of "Idol" and CBS apparently insulting cable during its conference about the Emmys), I'm not bitter. That's because I've spent the past week catching up with the original British "Life on Mars" -- a pretty terrific TV show that I missed during its initial run. The first of the show's two seasons arrived on DVD last month, and I was eager to get a glimpse of it.
I really liked the short-lived American version (well, except for those mind-boggling last five minutes), and was curious to see if the source material was truly as good as I've heard.
It is. For those unfamiliar with the premise, "Life on Mars" is about a modern cop, Sam Tyler (John Simm), who is hit by a car and lands in 1973. He doesn't know how or why he's there and doesn't know how to get home. Perhaps worst of all, he must work with a group of thuggish cops who don't exactly cotton to Sam's genteel modern methods. The leader of the gang is Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (the absolutely wonderful Philip Glenister), a gruff, vulgar type who isn't opposed to slugging suspects -- or his own officers.
While I was charmed by the remake's stylized, old-fashioned, almost corny approach, the British version is, unsurprisingly, superior. It's a bit grittier and a little more serious, delving deeper into the dark side of Sam's "condition." But there's plenty of humor here, mostly from Glenister. Though I adored Harvey Keitel as the American Gene, his was a theatrical, outsize performance. Glenister has certain grand elements in his performance as well, but there's more depth and texture in his portrayal (plus, of the two, Glenister gives the better delivery of the line "You're surrounded by a bunch of armed bastards!").
Simm is also charming and effective as Sam, and the whole show is smart, fun and addictive. I'm sorry it's taken me this long to watch, and I greatly look forward to season two.

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