The Show: 4 out of 5
“You know something, Tyler? You're not so special. We all go crazy at some point. Happens to every cop who gives a crap about what he does. That's why we're alcoholics. That's why our women leave us. We're broken toys. What makes us different from those folks in the psych ward … We keep each other sane. That's what it's about. Any decent precinct house … We keep each other sane.”
I could curse ABC for such an abhorrent act of television shortsightedness. In a year which brought forth to network television a throng of clones and tired and predictable procedurals, the American remake of the BBC’s critically acclaimed series of the same name, was a true bright spot. Like the original BBC series, Life on Mars begins with Sam Tyler, a detective in the present day (2008 for the US remake) being hit by a car and waking up in the year 1973. The fish out of water tale, dramatically imbued with matters of procedural differences and a lack of technology that Sam has a hard time getting used to, is augmented by the mystery of why he has gone back in time (and whether the future actually exists), and strange visions and clues that tie him to a life beyond his new present day. What a fantastic concept, rife with opportunities to explore crime solving in the 70’s with a sci-fi twinge that elevates the procedural drama, all without alienating viewers less comfortable with matters of science-fiction.
Detective Sam Tyler is played by Jason O’Mara who absorbs the conflicted and confused detective. He is at once befuddled by the alien world of 1973, and obsessed with solving his own personal, private mystery of why and how he is there. O’Mara proves to be a likeable and deft leading man. The great Harvey Keitel portrays the gruff, rule bending Lt. Gene Hunt, the big cheese at the 125th precinct with whom Tyler does not immediately get along with after Tyler ‘shows up as a transfer from another station’. With Tyler’s modern day thinking, he frequently stands at odds with Hunt’s tactics. The dynamic between these two characters is one of the more satisfying on the show.
Micheal Imperioli portrays Det. Ray Carling, a man of questionable ethics – with heavy doses of misogyny and bigotry available when the moment calls for it. Imperioli quickly becomes the rub against which the possible time traveling Tyler butts against – and becomes the character you love despite several of his reviling characteristics. In tackling the sexism that was far more pervasive in the 70’s, Gretchen Mol plays Annie Norris, a police woman who, despite her obvious skills and intellect, is reduced to a glorified assistant, and adorned with the less than affectionate nickname of ‘No Nuts’. She is frequently questioned or dismissed because she is ‘just a woman’, though the respect she gets from Tyler helps with her confidence, and we witness her gain from strength to strength as the show progresses. Lastly, the fresh-faced junior detective, Chris Skelton, is played by Jonathan Murphy. A novice in almost every regard as the show begins, he grows to be a likeable, capably member of the team.
The delicious merging of genres and the expert sewing of weekly dramatic plots with the ongoing mystery at the heart of the show’s premise, provide for one of the better and most original shows the big networks have produced in at least a decade. Adaptations from British shows are a risky maneuver, especially the critically acclaimed, award-winning successes like Life on Mars, but this American version had a good feel for the heart of the concept, and did not merely clone the show, it imagined it perfectly for an American audience, keeping the creative joy alive, while developing relevant elements for a different audience altogether (without really compromising or watering down the proceedings). It was, in a word, terrific.
Episode 1 – Out Here In The Fields (Available with Audio Commentary)
Episode 2 – The Real Adventures Of The Unreal Sam Tyler
Episode 3 – My Maharishi Is Bigger Than Your Maharishi
Episode 4 – Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows?
Episode 5 – Things To Do In New York When You Think You’re Dead (Available with Audio Commentary)
Episode 6 – Tuesday’s Dead
Episode 7 – The Man Who Sold The World (Available with Audio Commentary)
Episode 8 – The Dark Side Of The Mook
Episode 9 – Take A Look At The Lawmen
Episode 10 – Let All The Children Boogie
Episode 11 – Home Is Where You Hang Your Holster
Episode 12 – The Simple Secret Of The Note In Us All
Episode 13 – Revenge Of The Broken Jaw
Episode 14 – Coffee, Tea Or Annie
Episode 15 – All The Young Dudes
Episode 16 – Everyone Knows It’s Windy
Episode 17 – Life Is A Rock (Available with Audio Commentary)
The Video: 3.5 out of 5
ABC brings Life on Mars to us on four discs with the HD broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1 intact and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image is a little soft, but that is by design. The palette is replete with browns, oranges and pale yellows indicative of the era, and are on display here cleanly and with a good level of detail (relative to the intent of the show’s makers). The image is good quality and is completely fitting of the content.
The Sound: 3.5 out of 5
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound available on this complete series set is good, but not great. The center channel is, as I have come to expect, free of any issues, and the more ethereal moments – which frequently accompany Det. Sam Tyler’s confusion and self-revelation (which help him come to grips with what is going on with him) are played out in the surrounds better than you might expect. Overall, a good audio presentation.
The Extras: 3.5 out of 5
To Mars and Back: (15:35) – A look at adapting the show from the revered original, and finding ways to comment on today through the stories (and life) from the 70’s. Actors and crew speak warmly of the show and its intent.
Sunrise to Sunset with Jason O’Mara: (9:34) – This featurette follows actor Jason O’Mara from the pre-dawn arrival – through wardrobe, make-up, working on a scene, and more – through the close of the day. It’s entertaining enough to watch though.
Flashback: Lee Majors Goes to Mars: (7:54) – An odd extra as Lee Majors visits the set (and gets a tour) accompanied by pop-up facts.
Spaced Out: (2:43) – A fairly good blooper reel.
Deleted Scenes: – A collection of 10 deleted scenes from a number of episodes, including some great scenes dealing with racism.
Audio Commentaries: – Commentaries available for several episodes (see note next to episodes in the episode list).
A superb television series killed entirely too soon, I would have truly enjoyed seeing how this American adaptation, which needed to add more elements into the mix to accommodate the larger number of episodes required, and the need the networks have for longevity (unlike American shows, great shows in the UK can have one, two or three seasons (or series as they are called there) and not be considered failures). While the finale of the show, a memorable and quite bold close to the series, may leave some a little disappointed (or enraged, apparently), I firmly believe that a few more seasons of mystery and magnificence, which this show proved it could deliver, would have allowed more to not be as shocked. Think about how mind-bending LOST has become now that you are all hooked – if half of what they give us from week to week were to have been introduced in the first season, many would have tuned out. Excellent, excellent performances, superb music, vivid period details, and a commitment to great storytelling define this show. Despite its early demise, this ‘complete series’ works as a standalone experience and one which I can highly recommend.
Overall Score 4 out of 5