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Beating Up The Wrong Guy

It seems the proposed US remake of Life on Mars has hit the buffers. I have to say it comes as no surprise.

The unique texture of Life on Mars comes from the way it consciously addresses its own fakery: we're never quite sure if this is really 1973 or a marabou stork nightmare thereof. It's as much about the media presentation of the two periods as it is about the actual differences. The key lyric is not so much "take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy" as "oh man, wonder if they'll ever know this is the best selling show". Sam Tyler is a modern TV copper, a politically-correct, university-educated managerialist familiar with all the forensic science, psychology and other procedures and jargon that pad out a typical episode of The Bill; Gene Hunt is his seventies counterpart, the sort of swaggering macho maverick who dominated shows like The Sweeney or The Professionals, for whom all that stuff was poncey desk-jockey rubbish that shouldn't get in the way of kicking villains' heads in. The trouble with translating this culture clash to an American context is that the core assumptions simply don't work.

The Sweeney was itself a metafiction: a conscious attempt to import the gritty rough-and-tumble of American gangster movies into a genre that had hitherto been dominated by cosy morality plays on the model of Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars. It was violent, it was controversial, it was thought to bring policing into disrepute, and therein lay its transgressive appeal. It may have been partly inspired on the early behaviour of the real Flying Squad, some of whose officers went on record years later as saying they were making most of the rules up as they went along - but stylistically and thematically it was a complete departure from the way the police were expected to be portrayed on the telly. That it's now considered a kitsch period piece has less to do with the sideburns and lapels than with the way later programmes have reverted to the classic detective formula - as iconically demonstrated by the late John Thaw's transformation from Jack Regan into Inspector Morse. If, somehow (and it's hard to imagine), the cultural and political climate of the period had allowed the Sweeney trend to continue - each new series ratcheting up the grit, squalor and moral ambiguity - then we might very well have ended up with a scouse or brummy equivalent of something like The Shield or The Wire by about 1989. Instead, we got Heartbeat.

And that's the key; because Life on Mars is about how we got to here from the seventies, and what the two eras would look like to each other if they somehow collided. And the cop shows of both eras look markedly different on either side of the Atlantic: ironically, at the same time as the Sweeney and CI5 were charging around playing at being the Untouchables, American series were veering away from the hardboiled, pulp-influenced tradition towards something a bit more nuanced, compassionate and complicated. Theo Kojak was a tough guy, but he had a big heart and he understood the social deprivation that led good people to do bad things; Starsky and Hutch were a deliberate subversion of the god cop / bad cop routine, both of them being young, hip, funny, friendly guys who tried not to let the job get to them. Even in The Streets of San Francisco, probably the closest match to the Hunt/Tyler dynamic, it was Michael Douglas as the young idealist who was most of the period: the culture clash element came from the fact that Karl Malden's character was a relic of the old mob dragnet days. The high water mark of the trend came with shows like Cagney and Lacey and Hill Street Blues, in which the characters' personal crises and the human cost of crime and policing often pushed the detective-story elements out of the script altogether, and no-nonsense hardliners like SWAT commander Howard Hunter were lampooned as triggerhappy fascists. The other side of the coin is that in modern US shows, the likes of Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer, for their own separate reasons, don't give a shit about careful proceduralism and social justice: they are thugs first and public servants second, if at all.

So to work, an American version of Life on Mars has to do more than just swap locations. It has to acknowledge its own cultural hinterland, because the audience simply won't recognise that of the original. That means turning the Hunt/Tyler relationship on its head: what the remake needs is a seventies cop who's progressive, empathetic, smart and incorruptible - a kipper-tied bleeding heart who'd lay his life on the line to save the most desperate junkie; and a 21st century walk-in who's more in the maverick, beat'em-till-they-confess vein, and mainly sees being trapped in the past as a chance to pick up cheap land in Manhattan.

Or would that say too much about America, then and now?