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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

the last episode of the American ‘Life on Mars’: no they didn’t!


When I heard that the fake Life on Mars was being cancelled, I recorded the last two episodes so I could see just how badly they were gonna screw it up, and I finally watched both last night. And I’m really hoping I’m gonna wake up out of a coma and discover that this was all a terrible nightmare generated by my damaged brain, because not only was their idea of a resolution worse than I imagined, it was worse than I could have imagined. (I stole that last bit from my friend Bonnie — bronxbee in comments here — who watched with me, and was just as stupefied by the ending as I was.)

Although I have to admit that it does perfectly encapsulate much that was wrong with this adaptation of one of the best shows ever made: It was so unbe-freaking-lievably literal that you almost cannot wrap your head around how stupid the writers must have imagined their audience was. So Sam was asleep in a freezer on a spaceship on the way to Mars! Are they fucking kidding us? As if Life on Mars had to actually be about Mars! Forget metaphor. Forget subtlety. Forget cleverness.
No, really, really forget metaphor, subtlety, and cleverness. In the second to last episode, we learn that 1973 Sam lives in apartment 2B (or maybe that was revealed in a previous episode, one of the ones I couldn’t bear to watch — but I bet it wasn’t). And I thought, Are they fucking kidding us? 2B… or not to be? No they didn’t! It’s as if this bit were specifically designed to pander to stupid people, to make stupid people think they’re deep by taking their hand and leading them to the one line from Shakespeare they know. (I’m not saying the audience was stupid, just that the writers figured they were and might as well give them a condescending pat on the head.) And then, in the last episode, as if that astonishing bit of insulting obviousness weren’t enough, Sam’s hippie neighbor Windy has to actually come out and say, to Sam’s face, “2B, or not to be.” For all the extra stupid morons watching who hadn’t already figured that one out, I guess. Or maybe for Sam. Maybe the writers thought Sam was stupid.

Oh, and Sam… It turns out, in the last minutes of the show, that the writers choose to taunt the audience. “Guess what?” they cackled gleefully. “You don’t know Sam at all. You never met the real Sam. You don’t know anything about his life. He was never a cop in 2008. His father was never a villain who influenced his life for good or bad. He never had a girlfriend named Maya. It was all a dream, or a game, or a virtual novel that Sam was merely playing along with.” So everything dedicated viewers of the show had seen up to that point was a trick, a joke, completely and utterly pointless. I’m infuriated by that, and I didn’t even like the show, didn’t even like this Sam. I can’t imagine how mad I’d have been if I did like the Sam I’d been spending time with for however many episodes there were.

If we didn’t already have ample evidence of the contempt the writers clearly held their audience in, here it was for sure.

And forget about learning anything about the real Sam, other than he’s on a “gene hunt” with his father, “Major Tom.” *groan* Because now the show is over. And it wouldn’t matter anyway. Because the real Sam has absolutely nothing to do with anything that the audience has seen.

The ending of the proper British Life on Mars was sad, because I love that Sam and I would have loved to spend more time with him. But it was satisfying, too — it was right, for the story, for the character. But this… this is enraging. This is beyond enraging. I can’t even articulate how enraged I am.

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