Author and “friend of the program” Telly Davidson contributes this insightful look at ABC’s late, maybe-not-so-great (except in adventurous spirit) cop drama Life on Mars, new to DVD in collected form:
The subject of how we perceive the reality (or is it reality?) of the days of our lives has been the stuff of legend ever since the birth of religion and storytelling. And the thought of time travel in a serious context is also rife with philosophical questions that stumped the likes of Sartre and Einstein, though happy-go-lucky adventures like Back to the Future and comic books have superficially taken the edge off. In more recent times, filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, and novelists like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, made careers out of it. There is also the documented phenomenon of people “remembering” detailed past-life situations from seminal events in history (the Civil War, Cleopatra’s Rome, the Holocaust), even though the people doing the remembering were born decades if not centuries after the events described took place.
Still, taken seriously, the possibility poses challenges to the core beliefs of both religious right fundies and no-intelligent-designers like nothing this side of Darwin himself. Could there be an alternate reality where the Inglourious Basterds did stop Hitler, where John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Heath Ledger are all having a party, where JFK never got shot and Mohamed Atta got shot down? (No, the National Enquirer doesn’t count.) Reincarnation at least postpones a belief in instant-karma heaven (or hell or purgatory), and obliterates the atheist (dis)belief in permanent midnight.
Scott Bakula’s signature Quantum Leap was the first solid, long-running hit about a man who came unstuck in time, and since then there have been other one-season wonders jaunting their way through network prime on their inexorable journey to rerun marathons on SyFy. The latest was ABC’s Life on Mars, starring Jason O’Mara (above right) as a 2008 New York cop named Sam Tyler who, following a car accident that may or may not have been intentional (while pursuing a lead in a serial killer case), finds himself warped back in time 35 years, to the spring and summer of 1973. Strangely, he finds himself working as a cop in much the same precinct (minus computers, cell phones, fax machines, DVDs and DNA, natch), with a crew of 1970s cops who seem to have always known and worked with him.
The fact that he is at first confused by his surroundings and doesn’t remember them lead the group to tease him as “Space Man,” and leads Sam to wonder — could 2008 have just been a dream? Is 1973 where he was from after all? And why 1973, anyway, other than it being the title of a groovy James Blunt song? (The title “Life on Mars” refers to a Velvet Goldmine-era David Bowie hit.) Sam was born in 1969, so it wasn’t to revisit his birth — though both ominous events in his own childhood and the serial killer case he was investigating when he was struck in 2008 both date back to that fateful year. And like a comatose victim, Sam sometimes hears faint voices and hallucinates “visions” of 2008, beckoning him to come back — or to go end-of-watch forever.
The show boasted one of the most A-level casts in recent network series TV, with Michael Imperioli and Harvey Keitel (above left) as the politically incorrect cops in Sam’s precinct, and Gretchen Mol as a possible 1973 love interest, and the only female cop in the squadroom (her semi-affectionate nickname: “No-Nuts”). Based as it was on a BBC miniseries, original stars Philip Glenister and John Simm were approached (strangely, the lead actor in Life on Mars seems to have been intended to be significantly less famous than his costars) but they turned it down, though eventual lead O’Mara is also a son of the United Kingdom.
As someone who has felt severely lost in time for most of his life, this was a guaranteed attention-grabber. Though the show is consistently interesting, it begins to feel like a forced march as it progresses from here to eternity. And its episodic plots, which already have to be contrived to some degree by the nature of the very premise, turn downright gimmicky. CBS’s reliably popular (and superior) Cold Case already covered the theme of contrasting today’s comparative freedom with the stifling racial, sexual and class morays of the ’40s and ’50s (and the boundary-free liberated excess of the 1960s, ’70s, and go-go ’80s) — in far more memorable and emotionally haunting fashion. (While Cold Case can have a heavy hand, Life on Mars hits with a trash compactor.) Without the time-travel MacGuffin, this show is just yet another innumerable wannabe spin-off of original-recipe CSI, Law & Order or NYPD Blue — let alone quirky, flawed, instantly buzz-worthy sleuths like Monk, House and The Mentalist — and without most of those shows’ literate storytelling stylishness.
While I won’t spoil the series ender, it has a fittingly spaced-out final explanation — although, like Dallas‘ notorious “dream sequence” or the autistic-child’s-fantasy ending to St. Elsewhere, the Life on Mars denouement also reduces all the drama and emotional investment in the characters to a mere space oddity. Unless handled with home run brilliance, any reductive explanation of such an outlandish premise is bound to disappoint, though the show at least deserves an “A” for effort in trying, rather than just leaving the viewers hanging once the 17 episode orders ran out. But for a considerably superior — and far more provocative and stylish — small screen look at altered states, one need look no further than your TiVo, for Eliza Dushku and Joss Whedon & Co. on Fox Fridays, with Dollhouse.
Housed in clear plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, Life on Mars comes presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional Spanish and French subtitles. Bonus features include four episodic audio commentary tracks interspersed throughout the series, as well as 10 deleted scenes, a short gag reel, and a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette comprised of EPK-style interviews with cast and crew. Somewhat bizarrely, there’s also a brief featurette in which The Six Million Dollar Man‘s Lee Majors tours the Life on Mars set with O’Mara. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C+ (Show) B (Disc)