Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Review: Life on Mars

Over Labor Day weekend I marathoned my way into catching up with what BBC America's aired so far of Life on Mars. I'd watched the first half of the pilot a while back and wasn't sure if I was going to like it. I generally run out of patience with shows that have closed concepts like this one.

If you don't know what it is, it's about a police detective who's hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. There's a lot of evidence that he's actually still in a coma and just imagining being back in time, but he can't understand the level of detail in his new world. The premise of the show is that if he figures out exactly what happened to him, he can get back to his own time.

The problem is that -- like The Prisoner or Gilligan's Island or Star Trek: Voyager -- you know that he's never going to figure it out and go home until the show's over. That gets old unless there's something else to keep you coming back every week. Take Lost, for instance, with its focus on the characters' pasts and relentless sense of mystery. You don't care if the characters never get home, so long as the island stays interesting.

Same with Life on Mars. I've been itching for years for the kind of detective show that I grew up watching as a kid. Something along the lines of Mannix or The Rockford Files or Magnum p.i. These days it's all C.S.I. and Law and Order, with the focus on the procedure rather than action and mystery. Because it takes place in the '70s, Life on Mars is exactly what I've been longing for. No computer models to re-enact crimes, no dusting skin for fingerprints, not even any cell phones to keep the police in constant contact with each other. And the genius of the show is that -- through Sam, our "time-travelling" detective -- it acknowledges that crime prevention in the '70s was archaic at the exact same time that it's embracing the fact. We're allowed to roll our eyes at it even as we thrill to the car chases and fist-fights.

Every episode, there's a little reminder that Sam's got a larger mystery to figure out, and we're gradually collecting pieces of information that will help us do that too. But like with Lost, I'm finding that I don't really care if he ever gets home. I don't want it to end.


West said...

That's a fantastic review. Really impressive.

I wonder, though, if not caring if ol' boy ever gets home ever impedes the audience's emotional connection to the main character. If the main character is rather incidental (i.e. he's just an excuse to set the story in that time, where we can see what happens to OTHER people), I could see it working out.

By the way (and as I've said before), I'd have strangled the $#!+ out of that imbecilic Gilligan a loooooong time before that show was cancelled.

Michael May said...

I didn't talk too much about characters, but that's actually the strongest piece of the show.

You know how in those old cop shows they always had the maverick detective bend the rules because it was the only way to catch the bad guy? And it always pissed off the Captain or whoever, right? Well, in Life on Mars it's the Captain (Gene, the guy in the brown coat in the picture I posted) who's learned that you have to bend or break rules in order to be effective. He's a good man, but he teeters on the edge of being corrupt because it's the only way he can see how to do his job.

Enter Sam, who's used to doing things by the book (as most modern cop-procedural show characters are). Not only does he have new investigative techniques, but he's he's also got an uncompromising sense of morality about how to do the job (you don't plant evidence, you don't make deals with one bad guy in order to catch a "worse" bad guy, etc.). It's a reversal on the classic detective/Captain dynamic.

Sam doesn't come across as sanctimonious though. Gene is enough of a bastard (though a likeable one) that you're right there with Sam whenever his jaw drops and his dander gets up over whatever Gene's doing now.

Sam genuinely cares about other people and his wanting to do things correctly is born from that. You care about him; you're just glad that he's making the most out of his situation and not just obsessing every week on trying to get home.

At any rate, it's the relationship between Sam and Gene -- and watching them come to respect each other's points of view -- that makes the show. (And just so you don't think it's all testosterone: there's also a possible love interest for Sam too.)

West said...


Anonymous said...

The big mystery Sam is having flashes to will make sense in the last episode.

the other great reason ot watch the show is the lovely Liz White

Michael May said...

I'm really enjoying the flashes to the buckled shoes walking through the woods and how they keep adding more details each time.

You're right about Liz too. She's great.


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