Two British imports remade for U.S. television premiere tonight. The results are impressive and unexpected.
ABC's remake of "Life on Mars" is surprisingly great, its pilot living up to the lofty expectations of the original. Not many observers following the ill-fated path of this remake would have put odds on "Life on Mars" being anything less than a full-fledged disaster.
David E. Kelley was supposed to remake it, then agreed to leave the project, which was then almost completely revamped -- rarely a good sign. Lo and behold, "Life on Mars" is a reason to set your DVR on Thursday nights beyond NBC's comedy lineup.
"Life on Mars" galvanized the Brits (and Americans, too, when it was shown on BBC America) because the premise was so intriguing. In Manchester in 2006, detective Sam Tyler is following leads on a serial killer when he's hit by a car and wakes up in 1973.
With the David Bowie title song as a starting point and the show referencing all kinds of '70s images -- clothes, music, attitudes -- there were ample storytelling hooks. Part science fiction -- did he really go back in time? -- part police procedural, part mystery and part one man's search for personal identity, "Life on Mars" ran for two seasons and 16 episodes in England.
The U.S. version is impressively loyal to the original as it switches out Manchester for New York City, but most important, it works as an intriguing, exceptionally well-cast pilot. Irish actor Jason O'Mara is the only cast member who survived ABC's revamping. He brings real appeal to the role of Sam (as John Simm did in the original), convincingly being mystified, outraged and curious about his condition. He can't figure out whether he's in a coma, dreaming it all or if he's truly gone bac 35 years.
The great Harvey Keitel plays Lt. Gene Hunt, whose '70s-era beat-'em-up-and-plant-the-evidence ethos is a thorn in Sam's side. Michael Imperioli ("The Sopranos") is perfectly cast as Ray Carling -- all muttonchops, mustache and attitude -- who will frequently be at odds with Sam. Jonathan Murphy plays Chris Skelton, the more wide-eyed (and open-minded) young detective on the team, and Gretchen Mol is Annie Norris, who as the only female officer endures the sexist gibes of all those around her. Sam confides in Annie his belief that he's a time traveler, but also sees the psychological smarts she's honing and tries to use her in solving cases.
If "Life on Mars" clears even half the music used in the pilot -- the Bowie cut was an essential lock, but there's also music from the Who and the Rolling Stones -- then the series will be off to a grand start.
And yet there are certain worries. With only 16 episodes in England successfully wrapping up Sam's journey, will stretching it out for U.S. television doom it? ABC will want the network standard of 22 episodes for five seasons, at minimum. That might be asking for too much delayed audience gratification, but the pilot does create a lot of room for optimism.
Another Brit import, this one run through the Jerry Bruckheimer/CBS school of procedurals, effortlessly improves the U.S. batting average. Tonight's premiere of "Eleventh Hour," CBS' remake of the four-part British miniseries, feels like a sibling rather than cousin to other CBS crime-and-punishment procedurals.
British actor Rufus Sewell takes over the role played by Patrick Stewart in the original. Sewell is Dr. Jacob Hood, a biophysicist and special science adviser to the FBI. The series' title refers to complicated cases running out of time to be solved. That's when Dr. Hood comes in to try to figure out the weird science involved.
Not nearly as ambitious as "Life on Mars" but entertaining nonetheless, "Eleventh Hour" starts with an episode on cloning. Sewell portrays Dr. Hood as slightly offbeat but brilliant, and in constant danger because of what he knows. This means he needs to be protected, so special agent Rachel Young (Marley Shelton) is assigned to him. She's a bit of a pit bull in the pilot, but becomes almost a pointless sidekick in the second episode.
"Eleventh Hour" seems less "CSI" than one man's using his smarts on cases that highlight the fringe factor of scientific and medical crimes. In fact, "Eleventh Hour" is probably a better drama than Fox's "Fringe," sans all the cool graphics.
"Eleventh Hour" is another in a long line of professionally done, mostly compelling CBS dramas that you can forget about as the credits roll. The upside is that we didn't mess up another Brit import.
However, if you're being selective about what you have time to watch, opt for "Life on Mars" -- and pray that future episodes live up to the pilot.