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Movie review

Life on Mars USA

WRITER : Admin | DATE : 22-10-11 | CATEGORY : Movies
Well, that was… weird. I seem to be the only person on the planet with love for the American iteration of Life On Mars. It got a lot of hate for being too conventional, for not being as ‘out there’ as its British predecessor and basically being unoriginal. And I can appreciate those critiques having watching the first season – they are all relatively fair. On the other hand, isn’t it a little unfair to measure it directly to the original series, like comparing apples and oranges? New York of the 1970s was a very different place from Manchester of the 1970s and the new series had its own aesthetic. I won’t pretend that the show was a masterpiece of television history, but I do think that Life on Mars certainly deserved a second season.

Note: It seems impossible to discuss a show like this without discussing the (incredibly divisive) ending. I will be doing that, in gory detail, below. However, as per usual, I will flag it a paragraph or two beforehand, so you can avert your eyes or navigate away or do whatever you need to do. Consider yourself forewarned.

Life On Mars is – like the era of David Bowie that produced the song it takes its name from – an inherently British concept. Nobody idealises the past like the British, and BBC programming is steeped in period this and period that. Hell, arguably the best British comedy series, BlackAdder, is a period piece. The British series began life as a parody – a humourous subversion – of the inherently British cop show Heartbeat, which followed 1960s police men in a small village where nasty bikers could be deterred by a harsh word and the gruff moniker ‘sunshine’ was never used. Life on Mars was based around the idea of offering a glimpse of what classic policing would be like in all its politically incorrect glory. “Look at those cavemen go,” as Rose Tyler quotes at one point in the American show. “Look at those lawmen, beating up the wrong guy,” remains unsaid.

It seems like a tough sell to… well, anyone. Not least of which a major American television network. The notion of the rough edges of policing in the 1970s is inherently anti-establishment and more than a little edgy. It’s little wonder that Gene Hunt – portrayed here by veteran Harvey Keitel – had to be neutered for the trip across the Atlantic. In fact, a great deal of the differences in tone between the versions come from the way that Jason O’Mara and Harvey Keitel play Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt respectively, much differently than John Simm and Philip Glenister. Gene here isn’t so much a superior as a father figure. He doesn’t seem to actively dislike Sam’s new age thinking as much as his British counterpart does, instead seeming simply bemused by it. He isn’t as borderline racist, sexist or homophobic as the Gene we know and, despite the fact that several characters on the show call him a ‘dinosaur’, he’s practically enlightened by the standards of the time. It doesn’t hurt that his rough demeanor is severely softened of the course of the series (particularly in Take A Look At The Lawmen), as he discusses his failed family and attempts to connect with his daughter.

At its simplest level, the show’s strength lies in its cast. Harvey Keitel is his usual effective self as Gene (although he doesn’t quite steal the show in the way Glenister did) and Jason O’Mara makes a solidly reliable lead, even though Sam is never really given the same sort of wonderment or confusion that John Simm was allowed to so brilliantly convey through the character. The real standout of the cast, however, is Michael Imperioli as Ray Carling. In the British show, Ray and Chris were little more than window dressing (though Ray proved important to the climax of one particular episode and both got a bit more development in the spinoff Ashes to Ashes), and – though Chris remains fairly one-dimensional in this version – Ray here serves as a stand-in for all of Gene’s more politically incorrect leanings. He also serves as the show’s most quotable character:

Imperioli is a joy to watch in the role and certainly deserved a nomination or two – for that moustache alone. Gretchen Mol does her best in the expository role of Annie, and remains a talent to watch.

The show seems to know what it’s doing when comes to guest casting as well. In particular Things To Do In New York When You Think Your Dead has one of the best guest ensembles I’ve seen in television in quite a while, providing a home for a good portion of the cast of The Wire. Any excuse for Dean Winters to play a scumbag (as the elder Tyler) is worthy of my attention, even if it’s a shame the character didn’t really get much opportunity for development across the two episodes he appeared in. It was fun to play ‘spot the genre actor’ across the season, with Eric Balfour and Wallace Shawn popping in as well.

The series borrows rather liberally from the original, sometimes using whole episode plots (the swingers in Coffee, Tea or Annie, for example), sometimes using B-plots (the death of Sam’s mentor in Things To Do In New York When You Think You’re Dead, for example) and sometimes just using characters (Frank Morgan presented in Everyone Knows It’s Windy is very different from his British counterpart, for example). Some of these ideas work well, with others working less so – there’s an element of ‘been there and done that’ to direct adaptations, to be honest, with the American episode often coming out somewhat weaker. Besides, as pointed out above, New York and Manchester are different places. One imagines that the experiences would be different.

I actually found the more uniquely American of the show’s episodes (such as the rockers in Let All The Children Boogie or the college protesters in Revenge of the Broken Jaw) somewhat refreshing and would have honestly liked to have seen more of those. These are the forces that were brewing on the East Coast as the show subtly plays out the tragic fall of Richard Nixon in the background. The times, they are a-changin’. In many ways that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the show’s truncated run. It never really had a chance to define itself in its own terms.

It’s nice to see the period skilfully evoked, through the fashion and set details, but also through the varied (and generally excellent) music selection. New York in the 1970s was a fascinating melting plot and it’s nice to see it realised. A great deal of care and attention has gone into making the show look like it could be set in that period, and it’s nice. The set design and cinematography are all top notch, and the series is shot through a short of brown-ish sort-of-time-aged filter.

Being honest, much like its predecessor, the real joy from the show comes more from individual moments rather than the episode plots. Off the top of my head, Sam’s impromptu rendition of Ice, Ice Baby and the team deriding a suicidal mobile phone investor (“Who wants to carry a phone around with them?”) stand out, offering a real hint of the talent on the cast.

You’ll notice I haven’t really discussed that much of the core themes and concepts of the show. That’s because to do so is impossible without discussing the ending. So, consider this your warning. The spoilers are coming thick and fast from here on out. Head’s up.

The show was cancelled at (almost) the last minute, which obviously suggests that the ending was somewhat rushed, like a tray of brownies pulled from the oven too early. That’s not to say that the idea was pulled from some poor writer’s oriface, as there are clear signs that this was the direction they were going early on.

Small clues – like Ray’s nickname for Sam (‘space man’) or Sam’s fascination with rockets or the recurring Mars rover imagery (indeed, that was the first thing to occur to me when I saw the robots) – make it seem like a mission to Mars was always going to be a part of the big reveal in some way, but there is absolutely no way any sane audience member could have figured it out. Which is fantastic in this era of spoilers and huge internet fandoms, but frustrating. It’s not a cheat, but it is a copout.

I don’t mind that I couldn’t see it coming. That was actually one of the strongest reasons to like it. On the other hand, it completely invalidates the entire thematic underpinnings of the show. All that childhood stuff he was working out came from a childhood that never really happened? He never had a hot Irish neighbour or developed abandonment issues from everyone leaving his life? While his relationship with his father (as glimpsed in the last few moments) was awkward, it certainly doesn’t seem reasonable to equate the mission commander with Vick Tyler. And – most crucially – all this means that Sam never really wanted to wake up. He didn’t have to find a way home, because he’d be woken up when it was time. The very premise of the show is a lie.

There are more questions: are the likeness of crew and technicians built into the programme or are they a result of the meteor storm or Sam’s subconscious? In either case, what did Frank Morgan do to deserve being cast as a murderous sociopath? Was Sam aware it was a simulation before the storm hit, or was he always convinced that the neural net was reality? If that’s the case, it doesn’t seem like a very safe piece of technology. If the virtual reality implanted memories (as is implied since he remembers his 1973 childhood), surely that means the Sam in the reality has a different identity from the one plugged in by virtue of living a different life? Is the programme really interactive, or does it simply simulate free will? And, if Sam’s memories and thus his personality is different, does that really matter?

I appreciate what the producers were attempting to do. It was a way of demonstrating that reality itself might not necessarily be real – and it offers a pleasant echo of John Simm’s reflections on the British finale, suggesting that the modern world that that Sam returns to may in fact be a ‘dream within a dream’. It’s a brave move, and I laud it for that. However, the problem here is one of mechanics of storytelling. The journey is invalidated by the fact that the Sam we’ve known all season is not the Sam we spent the last few minutes with. All the emotional weight the series has generated – for example catching a killer before he kills or mourning a mentor – is all a lie, and a lie which I reckon may eat into the series’ rewatch factor. It feels like the proverbial shaggy dog story, a story where the lead character has an adventure, gets home and shot. There are occasions when this image can be powerful (like the finale to Night of the Living Dead), but this doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Maybe my complaints would be mitigated if the producers and writers had more time to set up the payoff. The one aspect of the finale which worked was the revelation that Tom – the basis for Gene in Sam’s dream – was actually Sam’s father, with a dysfunctional father-son dynamic (albeit less dysfunctional than the father-son relationship in 1973). Gene and Sam had a more father-son relationship throughout the show than their British counterparts. That said, it should be noted that the set design for this particular segment (obviously filmed after the cancellation) looks especially weak (we’re talking eighties-era Doctor Who), particularly compared to the high calibre work which came before.

That said, if I do run through the series again I’m going tobe paying a whole lot of attention to the weird pseudo-sexual stuff going on. When Sam hooked up with Gene’s daughter in Take A Look At the Lawmen, was he really bedding his father’s daughter? That’s… pretty messed up for a primetime television show on a major network. Though, given Sam’s weird pseudo-Oedipal relationship with Vic in The Man Who Sold The World (complete with jacket-sniffing and phallid rocket toys), one gets a sense that the Tylers’ internal family dynamics are – to put it mildly – messed up.

I don’t know. As I mentioned above, I’m fond of this iteration. It certainly wasn’t the disaster it could have been. It was consistently entertaining. Do I think it had a chance to live up to its potential? Not really. Was it a very original show for mainstream American television? Undoubtedly. Maybe I’ll have more thoughts on rewatch. For my money it can stand proud alongside its international bigger brother.

At its core, the series is about the search for meaning, for reason, and for knowledge. However, it soundly assures us, all that we thing we know is a lie and anything we build upon those foundations will only inevitably collapse. Your mother’s hot neighbour is a psychotic criminal (All The Young Dudes), your father is a gangster (The Man Who Sold The World) – but isn’t really your father at all – and the FBI are running a smuggling operation (Everyone Knows It’s Windy). Sam’s journey to 1973 is supposed to be one of self-discovery, but it’s not. It’s built upon an untruth. And you can’t divine truth from untruth – you’re more likely to find life on Mars.