Life on Mars, Stagnation in the States

British television makes American TV look like reruns of school board meetings on cable-access television. I'm not just talking about ideas so innovative we steal them (and ultimately beat them to death, see: reality television), or writing so good we ridiculously refilm it, practically verbatim, but in the local accent (The Office).

Their programming manages to make wildly successful ideas, run with them, and, most importantly, know when to end them. Unlike stateside television, which panders to the lowest common denominator and insists on milking a cash cow dry, British television knows when a story should end.

I just finished Life on Mars, a fantastically written police drama with a fascinating twist the succeeds where others would become a mere contrivance. The entire premise is explained in the opening credits: "My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever happened, it's like I landed on a different planet. Now maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get back home." The show follows Sam as he does his best to deal with the culture shock of having modern police tactics and morals in a station where roughing up a suspect and bigotry is the norm. The show is fantastic, the writing tight and the acting superb. A lot of the humor and drama are caused by the conflicts between Sam and his DCIGene Hunt, a man with pure goals and questionable means.

Hunt is, of course, my favorite character, always spouting surreal one liners:

"She's as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot."

"He has his fingers in more pies than a leper in a cookery school."

"You great soft sissy girly nancy French bender Man United-supporting puff!"

The show is great, and while it does risk the regular sitcom rut of "main character has theories contrary to those around him, must struggle to prove himself, is ultimately right", (see:House, staring Brit Hugh Laurie) it manages to combat this by the uncertainty and visions of a hero who may be mad or merely trapped in a fever dream. Rent it as soon as you can.

Ironically, I just found out the series is being remade in the United States, making me feel ashamed and a little depressed. There is good writing out there you bastards, you just have to give it a chance. Networks now either want to see immediate returns on new ideas (nearly impossible in such a varied landscape with 100's of channels), or they wimp out and either endless rework the tried and true (reality TV again) or steal a show they know has already worked in another market (The Office, Let's Make a Deal, etc.).

The worst part is that when a US producer does finally make a fresh new show that takes off, like Lost, everyone becomes so enamored with its success they can't stand to see it end. The series ends up stretching on and on, questions that should have been answered the first season are still up in the air, ridiculous plot holes develop and the big American pitfall looms: if are constantly building climaxes, stringing cliffhanger after cliffhanger, after a while the only direction left to go is down.

Also, Anne Cartwright (Liz White) of Life on Mars is fantastic. Earnest, kind and unassuming in a way that few actresses can pull off without a nod and a wink to the camera, she's also so darn cute you almost don't notice how gorgeous she is. Liz White and Maggie Gyllenhaal are currently foxy boxing in my mind for the title of "Sexiest Woman in Showbiz" and, I, uh. I'm sorry, that mental image is just too damn awesome for me to continue.

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