Life on Mars (US): Season 1 - Review
Review by Jack Foley
THE US remake of the BBC’s much loved Life on Mars series came with some impressive credentials, not least the formidable form of Harvey Keitel as Lt Gene Hunt.
Relocating the action from Manchester to New York was also a nice touch, especially as it allowed the makers the opportunity to include such strikingly inconic images as the re-emergence of the World Trade Center in its pilot episode.
But as fun and often absorbing as its US counterpart continually was, the show struggled to win ratings and was axed after 17 episodes. That it got wrapped up in time was initially perceived as a good thing – until the twist ending revealed itself and virtually undid all the good work that had come before it.
As with the BBC series, the show focused on Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), a 21st Century detective, who suddenly finds himself transported back to 1973 after being struck by a car while in hot pursuit of a dangerous criminal.
Stripped of his high-tech crime fighting equipment and forced to operate under a shady new moral code, Detective Tyler constantly clashes with Lt Gene Hunt (Keitel) his new boss at New York’s 125 Precinct, as well as colleagues including the smart-mouthed but highly sexist Detective Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli).
But he finds an unlikely ally and potential love interest in Police Women’s Bureau member Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol), who is often derided by her colleagues for having “no nuts”, while often proving to be the smartest and most sympathetic person in the room.
Although quickly becoming a valued member of the 125 Precinct, Detective Tyler battles to find a way back to 2008 and his true love Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet), keen to make sense of his predicament.
Co-creator David E. Kelley and writer Scott Rosenberg clearly had fun mixing elements of the UK series with US sensibilities and the ’70s backdrop. The look and feel of the show was exemplary, as was the excellent soundtrack, while the performances were all likeable, if seldom exceptional.
Keitel showed glimpses of the talent we all know he was capable of despite being sidelined a little too often, O’Mara was an engaging and suitably charismatic leading presence and Mol and Imperioli often good value as their colleagues. Imperioli clearly relished the opportunity provided by his innumerable “bad taste” one-liners, while Mol struck up a touching relationship with O’Mara’s Sam Tyler that was genuinely worth rooting for.
Storylines frequently echoed and sometimes blatantly copied those from the original, including pivotal episodes involving hostage situations and trafficking, as well as some of the relationships.
But as the end drew near, the US version decided to go its own way and then proceeded to deliver one of the more jaw-droppingly stupid conclusions of recent years.
Plot spoiler (don’t read on if you don’t know)
Where the UK version left things ambiguous but hinted at a medical explanation for Tyler’s time travel, the US version embraced the sci-fi ethos of the show and transported viewers to the future.
Hence, both of Tyler’s 2008 and 1973 realities were both found to be fictitious, and created by the onboard computer of a spacecraft that was carrying Tyler, Hunt, Norris and Carling on the first ever manned mission to the planet Mars, in 2035.
To sustain the crew, their minds were routinely kept active while asleep using virtual reality “neural stimulation” programmes of their own choosing, but Sam’s choice of a scenario where he was a police officer in 2008 was abruptly changed to a 1973 setting by a meteor-storm induced glitch in the computer.
The revelation was almost as anger inducing as that involving Bobby Ewing emerging from the shower in Dallas and descrediting the season that had come before.
It didn’t stand up to scrutiny, felt rushed and left you with a totally unsatisfied feeling.
Up until that point, Life on Mars (US) had largely entertained. And, if you’re prepared to go with the flow, it’s worth re-visiting or freshly discovering on DVD… so long as you switch off before episode 17!
UK DVD Release: February 15, 2010