First, a little history:
I watched the first series of Life on Mars (i.e. the British term for “season”), which amounts to eight episodes. When the second series rolled around on BBC America just over a year ago, I DVRed the entire thing, but ran into a problem – when I hit play on the first episode, all I got was a blank screen. Believing that somehow my subscription to BBC America was accidentally canceled which would result in me recording the channel but getting no actual image or sound, I deleted all the episodes. But when I hit play on an entirely different show (let’s say a G4 rerun of Cops), that was blank too, and I realized, all too late, that something was wrong with my box’s playback, and that I had deleted something that would probably never air again in this country.
Point is, my knowledge of the UK Life on Mars is limited to its first series. And let me tell you, it was brilliant. Sam Tyler, a modern-day Manchester police detective, is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973, in his same home town, just around the time he was a young boy. Taking a job at his own police precinct, he has to both figure out a way to exist in the 1970s while also trying as hard as he can to find a way back to the present.
When Life on Mars finally came to the U.S. – after David E. Kelley took an ill-advised shot at a pilot, then set in Los Angeles, then gave it over to showrunners who set it in the more-applicable Lower East Side of Manhattan – I was all set for a great show. It’s a terrific concept, and the possibilities were endless. The UK version played extremely well with old-fashioned detective work and its relation to modern-day police procedures, and came out somewhere in the middle, both parodying and paying homage to the television procedurals of yore. Sometimes a cop just had to rough up a suspect, but this barbarism was often nothing compared to some good profiling and psychological warfare.
The U.S. version, however, took a somewhat different route. While the U.S. pilot is almost beat-for-beat the UK one, it merely took that as a jumping-off point in the later episodes and became, for all intents and purposes, basically just another cop show with the time-travel twist. Unique to the American show were countless 70s jokes, ranging from Nixon humor to cracks about Soylent Green to Sam’s many aliases (Luke Skywalker, Tom Cruise, etc.), which were often met, by me, with a raised eyebrow. Humor is fine, but eliminating some of the original’s best elements in favor of some homegrown winks may not have been the best idea.
I think, if anything, I would describe the American LoM as a low-rent Scorsese knockoff (thanks, especially, to the presence of Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli) with the occasional moment of sheer greatness, but not enough to have made me want a second season. It took the easy way out far too often, leaving us viewers with completely average weekly detective mysteries that weren’t original 30 years ago. Other than the more serialized stories, I can only think of case off the top of my head that I found truly compelling, involving the race war that erupted after an African-American girl fell to her death off a building. That, specifically, was a damn good way of bringing modern politically correct sensibilities and common sense into a more heated, confusing time. Less effective was the early episode revolving around gay-bashing in the slums. There’s clever, and then there’s preachy.
Luckily, LoM dropped the preachy after it ended its fall season, but unfortunately some of its spirit went out the window as well. When the spring season rolled around, they had an extended episode order past the original 13, but were also warned, pretty early, that this first season would also be its last. So Sam, having finally figured out the deal with his douchebag father (which was, by the way, the final episode of the UK’s first series, and what the original Sam considered his entire purpose in “traveling through time”), Sam Tyler, and the show, moved away from the show’s sci-fi angle and focused more on policework, resulting in an enjoyable but choppy affair. This, thankfully, led to some great ensemble work, not just from the guys but from the ever-on-the-verge-of-fame Gretchen Mol, whom I’ve loved since Rounders and the vastly underrated sci-fi VR tale The Thirteenth Floor. While I love Rachelle Lefevre, I’m not sure if the role was right for her and I’m glad Gretchen replaced her in the role of No-Nuts Norris. (In fact, everybody but star Jason O’Mara was replaced after Kelley’s version.)
Other minor misgivings: I’m just going off of my knowledge of the UK’s first series, but I don’t recall Sam relying so heavily on his flash visions to solve crimes, such as in the US LoM when he realized that a man they were investigating would go on, years down the line, to murder more people, and thus Sam used this knowledge to get him before he committed the majority of his crimes. On the UK one, it was more that Sam was just a better detective with more training than his coworkers, and his skills, still unheard of in 1973, were unorthodox but extremely effective, and if you matched those skills up with Gene Hunt’s unstoppable brute force, they were a dynamite team. No Dead Zone flashes to be found, at least not to the extent of the new version.
And, of course, we have to address the completely out-of-left-field ending. While having no viewing experience with the second series of the UK LoM (or the lost-in-the-80s spin-off Ashes to Ashes, which I hear is compulsively watchable), I know that the entire show ended with Sam waking up from his coma in modern-day Manchester, but realizing he had no life there anymore, decided to kill himself, which in turn transported him back to the 1970s where he could have a great life as a renowned detective.
And why couldn’t the U.S. one have done that? Too grisly? I don’t think so. It’s a great idea, and a perfect denouement, respectful to the show’s thrust and its concept of trying to figure out where we belong and why. But nope. The U.S. version decided to lose its mind for the final five minutes, and for a great deal of people (including my wife), it dragged down the entire show, all 17 episodes of it. Turns out that it’s the year 2035, and Sam, along with all of his precinct buddies, were astronauts on a journey to Mars, and they were all in a very long cryogenic sleep. Sam had requested that his sleep program be him as a cop in 2008, except there was a glitch in the program, which would explain the time travel. In this future, in addition, Gretchen Mol is his girlfriend and Harvey Keitel is his father.
Oy. Way to shoot yourself in the foot. When I caught wind of this new ending, completely by accident as I hate spoilers, I thought somebody was fucking with me. But nope. As my wife and I finished the final episode Monday night after putting off the spring season until only two weeks ago, I knew what was coming, and it still sucked. It’s a letdown, both logically and thematically, and I wag my fingers at whoever lobbed that idea into the writers room in the first place.
But I’m also willing to let it go and recognize the quality that was the rest of the first and only season of Life on Mars: American Style. It was fun, it ended, and I had a good time watching it. I’m glad such a quirky show (at least, quirky for a while) was allowed to live its life in relative peace and not dropped after four episodes, and perhaps it could serve as a model that some American television should be designed to be a one-season affair. Then again, that’s what the awesome Taye Diggs show Day Break was supposed to be, and that was canceled before it could finish its run.
Whomever came up with that ending should identify themselves so that I may punch them in the face.
Plenty of single episodes of television shows have ended in an “it was all a dream” scenario — famously, the final episode of one of Dallas‘ later seasons features one of these revelations (which kind of undoes the entire final season of the show), as does a later episode of Rosanne — and I believe that can be used effectively for a single episode to show us an alternate version of events involving dreams, hallucinations, visions, coma-universes, parallel universes, etc. (Although, as I mentioned, I am still up in the air about its use on Bones in the season finale.) But for an entire series to be a programming glitch in an astronaut’s neurostimulation program when it could have been, oh, I don’t know, ANY OF THE MYRIAD THINGS SAM TYLER HYPOTHESIZED HE WAS EXPERIENCING is complete and total bee ess.
I’ve read that St. Elsewhere allegedly reveals itself in the series finale to have taken place entirely in the mind of an autistic child, but haven’t seen the series so I don’t really know if it would bother me as much as the ending of Life on Mars: American Style did. For one, I really don’t like knowing that the world I’ve been entertained and amused by and the conceit that brought me to the show in the first place was a mistake that’s very easily shrugged off by all of the characters after its revelation. Even the writers know that this ending is stupid because they give Michael Imperioli the following line: “Why would you choose to be a cop in 2008 for your neurostim?” Indeed. Why the fuck would someone do that? It doesn’t make sense. Being zapped back to 1973 within a computer program was nothing more than a confusing, 17-episode mistake. Way to have faith in yourself, series, because this ending completely nullifies anything interesting about the previous 16 episodes for me. The characters in the show believe it was a mistake, which seems to indicate to me some belief on the part of the writers and creators that the show’s existence at all was a mistake.
Secondly, ending the show on Mars is pretty much the most literal thing that could have happened to this series, and that’s just dumping a mound of salt and red dirt into the gaping hole left in the series’ purpose and credibility after the revelation.
That ending really did ruin the whole show for me. But if I had to pick one thing I actually liked about the ending, it would be that Sam’s clearly imaginary hippie-chick neighbor Windy who calls him “2B” (because it’s his apartment number) is the voice of the spaceship, and that the pod Sam’s been having his stupid-ass neurostim trip in is also numbered 2B.