Life on Mars is moving time zones. Starting this autumn, the back-in-time cop show originally made for the BBC, with its retro fashions and its gloriously politically incorrect one-liners, will jump from 1970s Manchester to 1970s Los Angeles.
An unlikely plot twist until you learn that Life on Mars is one of an unusually large trove of British TV favourites being kidnapped this year by US television networks desperate for new wit in their autumn schedules. But first they will Americanise them, with new actors – strangely, often British or Irish – and altered storylines.
Transatlantic plundering is nothing new; it goes back to Steptoe and Son and 'Til Death Us Do Part. A US version of Queer as Folk endured many seasons, as has NBC's makeover of The Office – even if sometimes the essence of a British hit gets lost in translation, as with Cracker and Coupling, both flops when reworked for America.
But this year's crop of British imports is a bumper one. Of 50 pilots that were vying to be picked up this spring by the four big networks – Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC – no fewer than eight were British in origin, ranging from Mars to The Eleventh Hour and, going beyond comedy and drama, Top Gear. It comes in a season when home-grown programme development was hampered in part by the Hollywood writers' strike last winter.
Reworking foreign hits, especially British ones, is an appealing option for the US networks because their foundations, from concept to characters, already exist. "If it works in the UK, more than likely it will work here if we do our job right," Craig Plestis, head of NBC's alternative programming, recently noted. "Very rarely has something been gangbusters over there that hasn't really worked over here." That said, when the networks unveiled their autumn schedules in New York last week, oddly missing from NBC's offerings was Top Gear, a Plestis project.
Disney-owned ABC was criticised for playing it safe with only one completely new show for the autumn; that would be Life on Mars, to be co-produced with UK-based Kudos Film and Television. Curiously enough, both the lead actors are Irish: Dublin-born Jason O'Mara will play the time-travelling detective role created by John Simm, while Colm Meaney, a familiar face on British screens, will fill the shoes of Philip Glenister, whose Gene Hunt became a national hero in Britain.
In one memorable exchange, Simm's character calls Hunt an "overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding". Hunt responds: "You make that sound like a bad thing."
But will the US writers hold their nerve, and give Meaney all those socially insensitive lines? This is a country, after all, that only last week saw Barack Obama apologising for calling a female reporter "sweetie".
The task of rehashing The Eleventh Hour – ironically, not that big a success in the UK – has been handed to producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It was picked by CBS for an autumn debut, with Rufus Sewell, himself a Brit, playing a professor advising the government on high-risk science experiments. Also on the CBS schedule will be Worst Week, bastardised from the BBC hit The Worst Week of My Life. Another television success, State of Play, is also in production, though the US version is bound for the big screen. Due for release by Universal Pictures in 2009, it will star Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren.
NBC has bought the rights to the comedy Gavin and Stacey, while lurking in the wings are US remakes of The Vicar of Dibley and Footballers' Wives (American football, of course). But adopting a foreign smash hit has its downside – namely, battling high expectations. Critics here are reserving judgement on whether ABC will do Life in Mars justice or make a dog's breakfast of it.