Idiot Box: Finding “Life on Mars”
In the wake of the success of “Lost,” a number of network shows have attempted to replicate its mythological and enigmatic nature, which were clearly its most compelling factor. ABC thought it could recreate that magic with an adaptation of the British police procedural (a genre that combines science fiction and fantasy) “Life on Mars.” Though the show only ran for one season due to poor ratings and as a result came to a somewhat unsatisfying ending, it had many excellent elements as evidenced by its critical success.
The premise may seem flimsy at first: after being hit by a car, an NYPD officer suddenly travels back in time to 1973 where he has a job at the same precinct as well as an apartment lined up for him. Despite the silly plot, however, great performances and an incredible design render the ’70s environment convincing, even to people who lived then (read: my parents). This is hardly surprising when a show boasts names like Harvey Keitel (“Mean Streets,” “Reservoir Dogs”), Michael Imperioli (“Goodfellas,” “The Sopranos”), Jason O’Mara (“In Justice”), and Gretchen Mol (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Boardwalk Empire”). O’Mara especially seems to have found his niche as the good guy cop in other shows as well. His genuine and sweet face alongside his talent make his constant heroics and likeability much more believable than they might in other series. He successfully evokes the intense ambiguity that is key to the show as he ponders why he has been sent back in time and whether or not he’s in a coma in a way that is credible and easy to accept for the audience. All the actors do an excellent job at conveying the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the era (an especially fun thing to watch at a place like Wes), and O’Mara’s character’s reactions to these sentiments and to the rampant police brutality make for tense situations.
The trippy premise remains present throughout the show in interesting ways. O’Mara’s character (Detective Sam Tyler) will sometimes find himself investigating crimes that have to do with cases from 2008—for example, tracking a future serial killer’s mentor. Images from 2008, and later 2009, also find their way into his 1973 life, creating even more uncertainty as to what exactly is going on. Sam also uses his knowledge of the future to predict significant sporting or political events to the bemusement of his colleagues in fun side plots.
Unfortunately, the show never found traction and ended after just one season, although the studio gave the creators enough warning to wrap up the story in a semi-coherent way. The whole series is available on DVD or Netflix Instant, and if you have enough free time (somehow) and feel the need for a fun show that isn’t too mindless, “Life on Mars” is definitely worth a look.