The accused: Life on Mars, “Life is a Rock” (Season 1, Episode 17)
The crime: Trying too hard to be different from the original series
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Hiya, folks! Welcome back to #TVFail. Today, I want to discuss a little-known, barely-recognized trend in popular media: Remakes and adaptations. I don’t know if you have noticed this or not, but Hollywood kind of enjoys taking old properties and starting over with a new “perspective.” Relatedly, the media industries sort of love to take things that were successful in other parts of the world and try to make them just as popular here in the good ole’ US of A. It is odd that no one is really talking about these approaches to storytelling, but it is out there. Remakes, reboots and adaptations are happening.
Fans seem to be more outwardly upset with the slew of remakes, reboots and adaptations that happen in the film industry – perhaps because they are simply more of them in that sector – but it is not like television is immune to the regular retread. Although it has always been the case in some regard, American television networks seem more willing to adapt British television programs for new audiences in the 21st century. Call it The Office effect if you want.
Nevertheless, audiences have become so jaded with the sheer amount of redone material in today’s popular culture that those actually redoing the material are pretty much screwed. Reboots and remakes come with obvious challenges related to audience expectations, distrust and general frustration. As a producer, you don’t want to be the guy who makes the reboot that has all the trolls at Ain’t It Cool News talking about their childhoods being raped. I’m not saying the media producers don’t deserve it, though. The “If first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again” model of storytelling, especially with superhero films, is ridiculous and at least moderately insulting to me as a viewer.
But adaptations, especially those for television, present a group of other challenges that are even more difficult to deal with. Thanks to things like high-speed internet, torrent sharing, comments sections and social media, it is extremely easy to know of or directly consume some piece of popular culture that isn’t even released within your country’s home boarders. If you’re a big fan of telenovelas, it’s not like you have to wait for the off-Region DVD or Blu-Ray to be released. In that respect, when producers decide to adapt a foreign project for our viewing pleasure, chances are good that many of us have already seen the original. We torrented it. We watched it on Netflix. No matter how we got our hands on it, the point is that it is much easier to watch something that airs in another continent than ever before.
Because of that, producers have a massive challenge in front of them: Change major portions of the story or keep it intact? Of course, they cannot win no matter what. Keep the story exactly the same and viewers quickly start pointing out the lack of originality, the inelasticity of the writing staff and the general stupidity of adapting the story for a new audience in the first place. The first example that comes to mind in this regard is MTV’s remake of Skins. Why even bother?
But changing big chunks of the narrative or altering character identities doesn’t do anyone too many favors either. This approach automatically allows the viewers to argue that the story was better in its original form or that the new writers are mixing things up simply for mixing up’s sake. The nature of pop culture consumption basically dictates that audiences will like the original of something more than the remake, reboot or adaptation (you’re now picturing that one friend who always rants about how the book version of your favorite movie was actually better), but of course, that doesn’t stop studios or networks from trying to cash in anyway.
ABC’s adaption of the UK series Life on Mars is a very curious example of how to handle the process. When ABC decided to greenlight an American version of the BAFTA-winning series, the British version of Mars was already completed. It included with a somewhat vague, but still fairly cohesive ending that, from what I can gather, fans generally enjoyed and appreciated. I haven’t seen too much of the BBC version of Life on Mars, but I can say that its pedigree isn’t something that is so inherently British that adapting it for American audiences is the most horrible idea, in theory. Throwing a contemporary police officer back to the 1970s is a wide-ranging enough concept that it could have easily worked for a new market.
However, the ABC version of the series seemed doomed from the start. Due to their standing working relationship, the Alphabet Network gave the adaptation responsibilities to David E. Kelley, which sounded like an awful idea from the beginning and ultimately ended up being so. Kelley has his strengths, but telling a complicated story about the identity struggles of a male police officer across two different historical time periods feels pretty much as far away from those strengths as you can get. When Kelley “stepped down,” ABC handled the production off to the guys who did October Road (and later, everyone’s favorite series Happy Town), changed most of the cast, moved from Los Angeles to New York and reshot the pilot. For a story that had already been done before, it sure seemed like ABC had no real clue how to make it work (or they just kept giving the wrong people the opportunity to do so).
The weird thing about ABC’s Life on Mars is that it grew into its skin a half-dozen or so episodes into its first season. I remember having very little interest in the story after the pilot episode (and again, recall that I hadn’t seen anything but the pilot of the BBC version), but I slowly started to appreciate the series’ wonky charms and the cast’s surprisingly solid chemistry. Jason O’Mara is one of those guys who seemingly find himself in a new pilot every year, but I never liked him more than I did in Life on Mars, while Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli and Gretchen Mol all made their respective characters more interesting than they were on the page. The mystery about Sam’s journey to the 1970s was mostly well-handled, with all the mysterious phone calls and weird, confusing visions. Half-way into its first season, Life on Mars became a legitimately engaging series.
Unfortunately, most viewers didn’t feel the same way as I and after the airing of the 12th episode, it was announced that Life on Mars wouldn’t continue past its 17-episode first season. It is unclear to me how far along in production the series was at that point, but I have to imagine that the cast and crew were informed before the public and they were already thinking about an ending anyway. The writing was on the wall. Because of this – and that the fairly consistent Mars rover imagery that floated around in earlier episodes – it is hard to give the production team the benefit of the doubt or say that they had to rush a hackneyed ending.
Oh, you haven’t seen ABC’s Life on Mars and therefore don’t know the ending? Well, here goes nothing: In this version of the story, neither the 2008 or 1973 versions of Sam’s “reality” are, well, real. Instead, the finale reveals to us that Sam is actually a NASA astronaut in the year 2035 and he has just woken up from two years of forced hibernation while his ship travel towards…Mars. Everything that we just witnessed was a fantasy the ship’s computer created to pass the time and while it was supposed to only send Sam to 2008, there was a glitch that jarred him into 1973 as well. Keitel’s Gene Hunt? Not real. Instead, “Gene Hunt” are words connected to the ship’s mission to see if there is…life on Mars. Keitel ends up embodying Sam’s father and we’re led to believe that this whole fantasy time we spent 17 hours watching was really just about Sam dealing with his daddy issues.
Listen, I know coming up with an ending is difficult, especially for a story with time travel, alternate realities and the like. Audiences are going to make their own assumptions and guesses about what is going on and it is nearly impossible to come up with something that satisfies everyone (even if your audience is small like Life on Mars’ was). These issues are only compounded further when the story is an adaption of something people really loved to begin with. As I discussed above, deciding between direct adaptation and greatly altered adaptation is like deciding between getting murdered by a gun or getting murdered by a knife.
In that sense, I sort of applaud the ABC version’s writing staff for trying something entirely new and utterly ridiculous. But to ask audiences to invest time in characters and a world for a certain number of episodes and then at the end negate all of it just to make a ridiculous obvious, stupid and frivolous comment on your series’ name is honestly one of the most insulting things I have ever seen happen in contemporary television. I would have had no problem if this version of the story ended up having something to with Mars and space exploration. Frankly, I probably would have no problem with any mediocre ending. However, the ending to “Life is a Rock” is just so stupid, so tone-deaf that I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through the writers’ minds when they crafted it.
Worst of all, “Life is Rock” ends with this uncomfortable sense of accomplishment and thematic resolution, as if all the faux-psychological damage Sam may or may not have repaired in a space simulation is wonderfully potent, moving and most importantly, clever. As the foot of 1973 Gene Hunt takes a step towards the ground of Mars and the ABC adaptation says goodbye, it sure feels like the series wants to feel like you’ve been on an important journey. It is, of course, unbelievably wrong in this regard.
ABC’s version of Life on Mars is clearly a cautionary tale for television adaptations and perhaps the most egregious misstep of an adaptation in recent memory. But the series isn’t alone in massive failure. NBC’s version of Coupling was a stupendous disaster last decade and much was made about McG’s attempt to adapt Edgar Wright’s glorious Spaced for American audiences (you can see some clips of that travesty here, if you dare). I mentioned MTV’s version of Skins earlier and there’s major scuttlebutt about Josh Schwartz bring Misfits across the pond as well.
It seems that American executives fail to realize that series reflect the location, culture, ideology and perspective of where they are produced and flatly trying to push that same vibe into an Americanized product doesn’t really work (this was the problem with Coupling, Spaced and Skins). However, changing things up dramatically has its obvious downsides as well, as something like Life on Mars so blatantly shows us.
Obviously, certain things like The Office or Ugly Betty have worked and show us that great adaptations can exist. But examples like that tell us two things. First, an adaptation needs a strong, quality voice that can guide the new version into existence while paying respect to the original. Greg Daniels and Silvio Horta did that for The Office and Ugly Betty. Secondly, cultural context has to be considered. The British series I mentioned above didn’t really work here because what made them so great in the first place was ingrained in an inherently British-ness that does not directly fit with an American adaptation.
I would never advocate for a curb of creativity or risk-taking in television production. Doing an adaptation is assumed to be fundamentally not as creative as a totally original work, but they can clearly work with the right people involved. But examples like Life on Mars remind us that adapting something for adaptation’s sake and changing the ending just to be different aren’t really the best ways to make an adaptation, or great television in general.