Life on Mars: Series 1 (U.K. version) (review)

Cop to the Future

(This is a spoiler-free introduction to the original British series, for those who may not be familiar with it. I’ll soon start spoiler-heavy, episode-by-episode discussions of Series 1 for those already deeply into the show.)

It’s rare that I feel comfortable raving this definitively, so I’m not gonna hold back now: Life on Mars — the real Life on Mars, the British one, not the tepid, cowardly, ultimately pointless, and now canceled American remake that aired last fall and this spring on ABC — might be the best TV series ever.
In the U.S., it would barely qualify as a series at all: it’s only 16 episodes in total, less than what is generally considered enough to fill a single season on American broadcast TV… and a show ain’t considered proper at all until it passes the 100-episode mark, because that’s when the dough can really start rolling in, when a series goes into syndication. And that’s where the American Life on Mars fell down, badly: it took what is basically a televised novel with a specific, definite ending and tried to turn it into something open-ended, in the hopes that the premise could be stretched out to at least 100 episodes. But that’s like remaking the original Star Wars trilogy and dragging it out to something 20 times as long. And instead of revealing in Episode 2 that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, the writers would merely be keeping that possibility in mind for the future, perhaps to deploy during sweeps weeks in the middle of the second season. And actually, the writers aren’t even sure if Vader is Luke’s father at all. Maybe Vader is Han’s father…

Now, the proper Life on Mars is coming to DVD in the U.S. — the first batch of eight episodes will be released on July 28 by Acorn Media (it’s been available in Region 2 for ages) — so everyone can see how desperately ABC screwed it up. I have a great fear, however, that anyone who was introduced to Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt on American TV will look at this brilliant series and see it only as a reflection of the other, and miss the sheer perfection of it. Which would be a terrible shame.

The premise: Manchester DCI Sam Tyler — a Detective Chief Inspector is a fairly high-ranking cop — is hunting a serial killer in 2005 (which is when this series dates from) when he’s hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Sam figures he’s either gone crazy, he’s in a coma and dreaming, or else he really has gone back in time. Until he discovers the truth, he’s stuck being a cop in the unenlightened past, when the rights of the accused — hell, even the rights of the victim! — were an unimagined fantasy, forensics had barely moved on from Sherlock Holmes, and the only thing hanging heavier than testosterone in the air of the squad room was cigarette smoke.

Where the American version turned 1970s New York into a cartoonishly overbright time-travel theme park — hey, look at the funny hippies! — Sam’s 1973 Manchester is gritty, complex, and totally realistic. In fact, as someone who is almost exactly Sam’s age and who did actually live in New York City as a child in 1973, just like American Sam did, Manchester Sam and his predicament and his weird journey through his childhood feels far more genuine to me. The entirety of the British production deserves all accolades that can be rained down upon them, but much of the credit goes to John Simm, the best actor you’ve never heard of (the only thing American audiences may have seen him in is Doctor Who, as the Doctor’s archenemy the Master). Simm’s Sam is a smart, sensitive, frustrated, expressive, explosive man. He’s never merely a character — he feels like someone you know, and his situation becomes increasingly affecting the more time you spend with him.

The British Life on Mars — have I urged you yet not to miss this? — is like a subtly clever blending of The Wizard of Oz and Back to the Future: it’s deeply emotional without ever getting mushy, broodingly funny without every crossing over into self-parody (as the American remake often did), and compulsively addictive. Yes, it’s only 16 episodes — the second batch is coming eventually from Acorn, I presume — but that just makes the experience all the more bittersweet. The producers of the American remake insisted they had dozens of possible explanations for Sam’s fix, but that left that retelling of Sam’s story feeling at odds from the very beginning. There is a resolution in sight for Manchester Sam, and you can sense it barreling toward him — and us — right from the get-go. It lends Life on Mars an urgency that is powerfully appealing, and the rich narrative tapestry of every individual episode rewards multiple re-viewings, in much the same way that a favorite novel bears up to multiple readings, and it’s so well-written that it reveals new secrets on each go-round.

(Bonus features include audio commentaries on every episode, making-of featurettes, and more.)

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