How ABC killed Life on Mars.

Anyway, I wrote about the TV series Life on Mars at Mayor Sam last fall, because I loved the concept so, so much. (Those ABC bastards don’t even have shows up to link to anymore!!) Briefly, a cop gets hit by a car in the present, and wakes up still a cop, still in NYC, in 1973, and spends the rest of the series trying to figure out if he’s in a coma, dead, time travel, etc. The episodes were filmed with a yellow glow, and include some great groovy scenes of hippies, old cars and attitudes, and even the Twin Towers (in the first episode only. Why, did the CGI cost too much?) Also lots of 70’s tunes, of course. I’m not into music at all, but a lot of people liked that the most.

The actor is a quite hunky, 40ish Irish guy who never let his accent slip once. Harvey Keitel – well, I’ve liked him better in other things. I really liked Gretchen Moll, and grew to like her more. The Sopranos guy with a stache overacted.

But I want to be clear that Life on Mars didn’t die a peaceful death. ABC killed it, with ugly knife wounds all over the place. They were GIVEN the premise, and a lot of the episode plots, from the very successful UK series of the same name (which has a spinoff). ABC HAD the setup, the familiar audience, the interest, the timing, the characters, even some of the dialogue from the England show. The cast changed, of course, and the one big change, and quite an improvement, was just moving the show from England to NYC. So why couldn’t they keep it alive???

  • The title. I loved the show from the first episode, but how stupid are the marketing geniuses at ABC? Once the first bounce of PR is out, all anyone sees on the tv guide or schedule or grid is THE NAME. What the hell does “Life on Mars” mean? Is it a space show, scifi? If so, why were so many episodes the keystone cops in 70’s uniforms? And the name is too close to Lost. I kept calling it “Lost on Mars” for weeks. Just a stupid, stupid mistake on their part.
  • The relationships. Where is the male bonding? It just wasn’t there, and this is in a show with only 1 and 1/2 women characters.
  • The fear. Or, no fear. What makes Lost so great? Monsters. Killers. Bears. Abandonment. Survival. Alone. The unpredictability. Here Sam is stuck in a world where he is 4 years old (and he SEES himself as a child!), and has no friends, no girlfriend, no family, no one to confide in, no idea what is happening to him, or even if he’s dead. He should have been terrified!! And angry. Instead, he’s happy go lucky most of the time. There should have been mystery, and a PROBLEM to solve.
  • The writers had no sense of humor. None. I know they were all male. Slapstick was their schtick.
  • The dialogue. Oh, Gah, I was so embarrassed after I had written about the show on Mayor Sam, and told everyone to watch, that it was that preachy episode about homophobia. Every cliche in the book, but the worst part to me was the sentences the actors had to say. Not only were they totally unoriginal, they were too long! The actors were literally taking breaths in the middle of them! Especially stache man, who apparently spoke only in similes anyway.

Still, sad to say goodbye, parting is such sweet sorrow. They did give an answer as to why Sam landed in 1973. People complained that it was unsatisfying, but really the whole show was unsatisfying. The most memorable part of the last episode was the child who played him as a kid. And I don’t even like kids! He looked like a little angel, so pretty when he danced. More of Jason O’Hara, and more of him, please.


  1. Andrew said:

    Have you never heard of David Bowie?

    The series is named after a very famous song of his. So is the spin-off.

    May 3, 2009
  2. Hi, Andrew, of course I’ve heard of him, and I’ve heard the song. I never knew that was the title of it, though.

    And even if someone knew the song title, how would that tell them anything about this TV show if they just saw the name in a TV schedule? The title could be a musical, a show like that 70s one, a sci-fi…

    I don’t think TV watchers are that astute, or want to guess, when there are tons of other shows available.

    May 3, 2009
  3. Oh, I didn’t know they made a US-version of “Life on Mars”. We got the UK-version on Swedish television and I remember enjoying it…
    The fear and anxiety of the main-character was definetly one of the things that caught my attention. Wierd to remove that element of suspense in the US-version!

    One show that definitely translated beautifully from UK to US though was “The Office”. I loved the UK-version with Ricky Gervais, but it was the US-version that truly touched me and made me laugh and cry over and over again!

    Nice blog b t w!
    //Frida from Sweden

    June 20, 2009
  4. Thanks very much, Frida!

    I have missed The Office, but everyone loves it so much I might have to try it out.

    And the main guy in the US version of LOM is rather worth checking out on his own!

    June 21, 2009
  5. Claire said:

    The reason “Life on Mars” died in America is because it is based on the history of the British police force. Its not a concept that the wider American audience didn’t like it is because they could not relate to it.

    It was named “Life on Mars” after the famous David Bowie soge which includes the line “take a look at the law man beating up the wrong guy, Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know” again a reference to 1970’s policing. I personally thought the title was fine for anyone who thought about it (you seriously must be dull if you have to instantly understand a title to even consider watching it.)

    The UK version had plenty of male bonding. Also Sam went through a huge range of emotions, fear and anger being the two key ones.

    I think the basic problem is that the original Life on Mars was fantastic, but the American adaptation was always destined to fail, considering the whole concept is based on 1970’s England. 1970’s America was a completely different place.

    Perhaps American producers should come up with their own shows rather that trying to adapt something completely British to fit their needs.

    August 21, 2009
    • Claire, when it first started here, I saw a lot of comments on TWOP about it being a UK show, and it sounds like they had a better grasp of the concept. And I remember specifically reading that Sam was fearful, as you say! Not just some happy go lucky new camper.

      Actually, I think it was brilliant to set it in the US, w/all the hippy vs police activity in the 70’s – but they didn’t have the writers, and mixed up the Keystone Cops with sci-fi, to lose both of them.

      August 23, 2009
  6. Claire said:

    Sorry, the first paragraph should read:

    “The reason ?Life on Mars? died in America is because it is based on the history of the British police force. Its not a concept that the wider American audience liked as it is something they could not relate to.”

    My bad. (I have dyslexia and tend to mix my sentences up)

    Another point about the title- the song “Life on Mars” is a reference to male chauvinism as the only nice, sane, rational person in the show is Annie.

    August 21, 2009

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.