Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) is a New York City police detective, and like apparently every New York City detective, he's hunting a serial killer. He thinks he's found his man, but the guy's lawyer comes up with an airtight alibi; at least, that's what it looks like. Maya (Lisa Bonet), another cop who happens to be Sam's girlfriend, isn't convinced. She follows their suspect to a park, and just as Sam finds evidence that the suspect's alibi wasn't quite so perfect after all, Maya disappears, leaving behind nothing but a bloody shirt on a playground ride. Sam rushes to the suspect's last known address–but before he can get inside, he's run down in the middle of the street.
When he comes to, he's wearing a leather jacket and wide lapels, he's lying in a vacant lot, and off in the New York city skyline, the Twin Towers are standing straight into the heavens. Sam's from 2008–but now it's 1973. Do you know where your temporally misplaced life is?
Life On Mars started life as a British series. I can think of a few reasons to import it stateside; the premise is brilliant (and we'll be getting more into that in a second), and cop shows are as much an American tradition these days as French fries and attack ads. But I think that shot of the World Trade Center in the opening, the last thing we see before the title card, was the clincher. We get another view of the Towers at the end, and it's a little much; but that first glimpse is as striking as it is blatant. Whether or not the show's creators plan on doing more with that moment remains to be seen.
Back to the plot. Not having anything better to do, Sam goes to the station house where he works, and finds things are running a lot differently than he remembers. The place is a boy's club, everybody looks like they're dressed for Serpico auditions, and the head man, Lt. Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), is an irritable, violent thug. All the technology Sam's lived with most of his professional life hasn't been invented yet; the rules are simpler now. Beat a witness till they confess, or until you get bored. Warrants are for morons, and a suspect's rights begin and end from the moment you get the cuffs on them.
It's chaos, but it's all Sam has to work with. And he's got to get his balance quick, because a body's been found, and the cause of death matches the M.O. of the serial killer who kidnapped Maya three decades into the future. Not sure if he's hallucinating, insane, or if everything that's happening to him really is real, Sam sets out to track down the killer; maybe if he catches the bad guy in the past, Maya will be safe in the present. At the very least, it's something to do.
Ambiguity is a hard note to hit on genre TV. We're an audience of Mulders at this point, trained to accept the most improbable solution to any problem simply because that's nearly always the answer. That's what makes the best story, after all. If there's a possibility of the occult, that's the possibility with the edge; unless we're watching a series that sticks to "real world" rules (ala Law & Order), that thing that everybody doesn't want to believe is actually happening? That's the thing to watch.
One of the strongest elements of the original Mars was how well it nailed a tone of uncertainty throughout the whole first episode. Our natural inclination is to presume time travel; there's no obvious cause for it, but, like I said, we've been well trained. And there are certainly elements in favor of Sam's 1973 transfer being the real-deal. As Sam himself mentions time again (in both versions), there's too much "detail." Hallucinations or dreams only go so far, and while they may seem real to the person experiencing them, they generally lack a full engagement of the senses.
But then there are those moments when it seems like the present—our present–is trying to break through. There are the sounds of an OR team trying to zap a flat-lining patient back to life; a TV show where the dialogue sounds awfully direct; or a conversation in a diner with a man who claims to know the answer to everything. The balance between the options is expertly handled, and that's one of the things that makes it so engaging. You really don't know what's going on.
The American version tries for that, but it doesn't try quite as hard. Probably the biggest difference between the two, and the biggest problem that the new series has, is that the original was much better at letting the scenario play out naturally. The remake is too forced, trying to hit as many bits of its source material (even down to the dialogue) as it can, and it doesn't have the rhythm right. Everything feels rushed, scenes and actors arriving at conclusions without bothering to think through them first. Harvey Keitel is getting too old to be a convincing physical threat, and there was the usual over-editing and color-filters, but the biggest let down is that lack of patience. The only way the series works–the only way Sam's dilemma and the contrast between modern policing and seventies-style enforcement will ring true–is if we can believe in these character making their own decisions. Right now, everybody seems to be running for the end credits.
There is some hope, though. At the very end of the episodes, Sam confronts a little boy who he believes will grow up to be Maya's kidnapper. For maybe the first time the whole show, the scene has real tension; you know he's not going to shoot the kid, but you don't know. It's one of the few bits in "Out Here In The Fields" that's entirely original to the remake, and that's a good sign. The original series only ran 16 episodes (two series of 8), and if the new version gets picked up, it'll run longer in the first season alone. Plenty of time to establish it's own identity.
—I don't care how many times I hear it, the opening to "Baba O'Riley" will always rock.
—Wire cameo: Clarke Peters is one of the Sam's present-day co-workers. Given the nature of the show, that's probably the last we'll see of him.
—For people who haven't seen the BBC version, what did you think?