“Out Here in the Fields”
October 9th, 2008
Over the summer, the internet was graced with what seemed like a gift: an early look at one of the fall’s most anticipated pilots, David E. Kelley’s adaptation of the British hit Life on Mars. People watched, and there was much negativity as it relates to the show’s relationship with the British original and generally what one would call a feeble opener for the series.
But then an amazing thing happened: the pilot changed. It changed producers, it changed locations, and it changed every one of its cast members but one. While I can’t speak to the British original (I know, I know, forgive me), I can say that these are, in fact, improvements across the board. It isn’t that the original cast was awful, but rather that they felt like an ensemble not quite capable enough to live up to the show’s premise. Here, we have a group of actors with some pedigree working on a show that, with some more refinement, can certainly rise to a higher level.
The biggest difference of all between these two pilots, though, is that this one has us wondering whether they can keep up this level of quality, and not whether they will be able to create any quality at all. Considering that a victory.
The story of Life on Mars is one that could easily fall on the side of confusing and ultimately settles on quite coherent thanks to some smart plotting. It’s essentially the story of a detective who, investigating a case in 2008 with his girlfriend and fellow officer, gets hit by a car and suddenly finds himself in 1973 investigating a similar case. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but the show seems to suggest that he is in a coma and is using this reality in a way that allows him to solve the modern crime using this one. There’s a lot of interesting existential questions about what it does to Sam Tyler’s mind, and what it means for him as a character, and the show is smart not to throw them all around willy nilly in the pilot.
One thing that this pilot more or less keeps intact is the general structure of the mystery of the murders that form our link between these two eras. It’s a slow build, the kind of usual procedural type of development, but its simplicity is the whole point: without it, the series could becomes more convoluted than interesting, a quality that we really don’t need in a pilot of all things. This is a world that Sam Tyler both understands very well (in terms of his advanced knowledge of psychological analysis and trace evidence) and not at all (as in how he’s there, and why he’s living in this particular universe), and there’s a nice quality to it that really lets the show’s characters provide the depth as opposed to the setup itself.
Keeping Jason O’Mara at the center of this show was very smart: he was good in the original pilot, and he’s still good here. What really makes this version work, though, is that he’s surrounded by people who seem to be crafting characters with more potential for growth. Most particularly, Gretchen Mol is a great choice to flesh out the character of Annie Norris. Given a Psych degree and more of a role in the police work, Mol brings to the character spunk without spunk, and does a better job at representing the role of women during the period than the previous pilot.
Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli, meanwhile, are perhaps the biggest names to join the pilot after the recasting, and they’re smart choices both. Neither get a lot to do here, since most character interplay has Sam playing off Annie, but they’re definitely improvements. Keitel, in particular, is simply more of an experienced thespian – I liked Colm Meaney in the role well enough, but Keitel is simply more adept at crafting a character who can live within this universe. His Gene Hunt isn’t just a cop who plays by his own rules, but a cop who can use the powers of persuasion with almost the same amount of skill when necessary. It’s a slight difference, but it does a lot of good for the show.
Similarly, the final scene in the episode is a really smart choice: it’s not Sam just sitting there watching the child, but actually in a moment of desperation considering killing the child. That Maya’s voice comes over the radio just as he reaches that point of realizing that he can’t do it, it’s clear that whatever messages he is getting from the future will continue guiding him in some way. But that he would even consider murdering the child does put this into perspective, raises the stakes if you will: there is a bit more urgency and atmosphere in this pilot, and on that level it really captures his “fish out of water” syndrome in its various details.
Like many period pilots before it (Mad Men, I’m looking in your direction), there’s some “nail on the head” elements here: a lack of diet coke, records, a lack of cell phones, and everything else you’d expect with the show’s central concept. That being said, the switch to New York from San Francisco not only contributes to the aforementioned atmosphere but also offers those moments of reflection as Sam realizes that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre are still standing. It’s a small thing, but it does make a difference in making Sam’s own reaction (of being totally overwhelmed) one that we can relate to on a deeper emotional level.
At the end of the day, though, it’s a sharp pilot: strong cast, good premise, and some real potential for the future. From what I know, it’s still veering quite closely to the British original, so next week will truly tell whether the show has much longevity in its American incarnation.
- I don’t know if I was any more excited during the new pilot as when I saw Clarke Peters, who played the indelible Lester Freeman on The Wire, show up as the detective who chased down the suspect in the 2008 period of the episode. I’ve missed seeing those characters, so even a brief glimpse at Peters as good police was enough to put a smile on my face.
- Let’s give some props for some great soundtrack choices: strange that the first episode’s title comes from a song that isn’t Bowie’s eponymous track, but I’m not going to argue about The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly,” am i?