If I were a particularly cynical person, I'd wonder whether the first, abysmal pilot for the US remake of Life on Mars had been intentionally released online once the decision was made to completely retool the show, as a way of lowering expectations and making the new, actual pilot look good by comparison. Most of the buzz I've been hearing in the last couple of weeks, after all, has tended towards the surprised discovery that the new, new Life on Mars doesn't completely suck, which in today's degraded television market is almost the same as saying that a show is good. (Seriously, is it just me or are things rather dismal on the TV front? The best I can seem to hope for is for shows to hold their ground, which in some cases--Pushing Daisies, Dexter, How I Met Your Mother--is good, in others--Sarah Connor, Chuck--is not nearly as good as I'd like, and in other still--Heroes--is grounds for dropping a show. And when the best new show of the fall season is Fringe, well, you know you're in trouble.)
So, yes, to get the obvious out of the way, the new Life on Mars pilot is light years better than the broad, quasi-comedic, indifferently acted travesty unleashed on the internet this summer. But is it as good as the original show? There I'm on shakier ground. The new remake is more stylish, and has a sharper and more distinctive look than the first US pilot--a cold, bright color palette and crisp, clean interiors for the 2008 scenes; warmer colors in 1973, but interiors which are grimy and cluttered. But then, that's exactly what the UK version did, and therein lies the problem with the US remake. Whenever it does something good or eye-catching, it does so in imitation of the original series, and though on occasion it does things as well as the UK version, I can't think of a single instance in which it surpasses it. Which, obviously, begs the question: why bother? Why make a US version of the show if it's only going to cover well-trodden ground, and more importantly, why should viewers who have seen and loved the UK original bother with the remake?
As so many people have said, what elevated the original Life on Mars from an at times well-written, at times simplistic cop show with a twist its writers didn't truly have a handle on was its cast, and it was this that was, arguably, the first American pilot's chief failing. There's a lot of improvement on this front in the second pilot, but again, there's a sense that we're seeing a good version of a great original. The American cast is good but lacks the UK cast's spark. Jason O'Mara, the only survivor from the original pilot, hits all the right notes--Sam's fear for Maya when she's kidnapped, his incomprehension when he first transitions to 1973, his despair once he realizes how trapped and alone he is--but at the end of the day, he's a stud and a beefcake, everything that John Simm's Sam wasn't, and his performance is missing the depth with which Simm imbued the character, the palpable sense that Sam's unexceptional exterior concealed everything important about him--his intelligence, his strength, his determination--all qualities which were always on the verge of boiling over. Gretchen Mol's Annie is, similarly, winning and compassionate, but lacks Liz White's vivacity and earthiness (there's also an unfortunate scene in which Annie has to spell out for Sam why it's not a good idea for him to bring her or her skills to the chauvinistic male detectives' attention, which makes her seem preachy and over-analytical, though this is hardly a complaint that can be laid at Mol's feet).
And then, of course, there's Gene. When Colm Meaney was cast in the original US remake, I was intrigued. Then I rewatched Deep Space Nine and came away from it with a vastly reduced opinion of Meaney's range as an actor (she said, fearing the wrath of the O'Brien lovers), but still reasonably hopeful that he had the right energy and physical presence for the role. I'm still not sure where the first pilot failed with Gene, and whether that failure was entirely Meaney's fault and merited his replacement--certainly the choice to give him jokey lines like "this completes your orientation" didn't help to ground the character--but what showed up on the screen was a cartoon, not a character, a antagonist for Sam to rail against, not a foil who would counterbalance him. When Harvey Keitel was chosen as the new new Gene I thought that here, at least, was an actor who would be certain to create a Gene with heft. But no.
Despite the fact that when it comes to his lines and actions, the new remake hews far closer to original, Gene still comes across as a cardboard cutout, a set of attitudes, prejudices, and outrageous opinions, not a person. The only conclusion I can draw is that, as the character is written, Gene was never more than a cipher, and that it was Philip Glenister's performance that brought the character to such vivid, three-dimensional life, the larger-than-life sun around which every other character on the show revolved (though it has to be said that the original Life on Mars often went too far into the realm of Gene-worship, and that one of Ashes to Ashes's biggest problems is the fact that it has transformed Gene from a man who takes up more than his physical space in the room into a mythical, perhaps even magical, figure). I'm sure that there are actors who could create this character on the American remake, and maybe Meaney and Keitel are in that group, but neither one seems to have been called on to perform this task. Possibly because, as in the first US pilot, the theme of policing and how it should be carried out, and of the constant tension between Sam's disgust and horror at Gene's methods and Gene's unflagging determination to do what he believes is right, is downplayed in favor of the coma/time travel/insanity dilemma, thus undermining Gene's importance to the show.
As was the case with the first pilot, the US remake's slavish adherence to the original pilot's plot makes the differences between the two even more glaring. The most aggravating change the first US pilot made--giving the two insights into the murderer's identity and motive, which were originally arrived at by Maya and Annie, to Sam--has been reversed in the second pilot. Only slightly less infuriating was the absence, from the first remake, of Sam's choice to suppress evidence of the murderer's insanity in the past in order to prevent him from murdering in the future, which sets the tone for the entire series, in which Sam is repeatedly forced to make compromises with his conscience and the letter of the law. The second pilot doesn't restore this plot point, but replaces it in a way that I found extremely odd. Instead of being an admirer of the killer, Sam's suspect from 2008 is now a copycat. By arresting the killer in 1973 Sam does nothing to stop the murders in his own time or Maya's kidnapping, which leads him, at the end of the pilot, to consider killing the nine year old future serial killer. He decides against this course of action when he hears Maya's voice calling to him from his hospital bed, having presumably been rescued without his interference.
This is problematic on two levels: first, because no one who has ever watched TV before would believe for a minute that Sam was going to kill a child, so the whole thing smacks of the writers walking right up to something transgressive and (how I've grown to hate this word) dark without ever having any intention of following through with it, and second because, though it's very nice for Sam that his girlfriend is safe, that doesn't do much for the other 2008 murder victim, for whom he doesn't seem to spare a thought when he decides not to take the killer's life in 1973. The new pilot also does away entirely with the UK original's final scenes, in which a friend of Annie's nearly manipulates Sam into taking his own life. I don't know how I feel about this change. On the one hand, that plot point always felt to me like the show going a bit too far, taking both Sam and Annie (not to mention her friend) into the realm of irrational behavior far too quickly. On the other hand, if there's one attitude that characterizes the new US pilot, it is clearly the desire to file off the original's rough edges and make it more palatable, and I can't help but think that the new version could have stood to go a little way off the deep end.
In the end, however, these are minor deviations in a whole that still feels like a lesser retread of the UK original with no personality of its own. The only point at which the US Life on Mars does something truly original is during Sam's transition to 1973, when the strangeness of his situation is brought home by him looking up, gaping with astonishment, at the recently completed Twin Towers. It's a uniquely American--uniquely New York-ish--touch, but also a lonely one. That said, it seems to me that we won't get a sense of whether and how the American Life on Mars is going to develop its own personality until we get a little further into the season, moving away from a pilot which we have, at this point, seen three versions of, and into standalone episodes which will hopefully take advantage of the new show's American setting to tell its own stories (and, according to some reviews, suggesting a new spin on the original series's choice between coma, time travel, and insanity as the solution to Sam's predicament). For the sake of this possibility, I'm willing to give the US Life on Mars a bit of leeway, but what I need from it now is a spark--of personality, of originality, of life--to justify its existence.