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Life on Mars: The Complete Series

Other // Unrated // September 29, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted October 11, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
Often when hit British TV shows are brought to the US, they fail miserably and deserve to.  (Anyone remember the Fawlty Towers take off staring Bea Arthur?)  Of course there are the exceptions, like The Office, but generally they're a pale imitation of the original.  That's why I approached The US version of Life on Mars with mixed feelings.  I really enjoyed the first season of the UK version, and I was afraid that ABC's version would strip away everything that was good about the original and create a run of the mill cop show.  For the most part I was wrong.  Yes, they did dumb down the show for American audiences, and there were some horrendous episodes, but overall it was faithful to the original and boasted a fantastic cast.  Unfortunately the show only lasted a single season, which is now available on DVD. 

Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) is a detective in New York City.  He's on the track of a serial killer, one who has just abducted his female partner and girl friend Maya (Lisa Bonet), and is desperate to find a lead.  Angry and impatient for a breakthrough he pulls his car over to the side of the road, gets out for some fresh air, and is hit by a car.
He wakes up some time later, but not in a hospital, or even on the side of the street.  He's in an empty lot where they're just starting to break ground for a new expressway.  He hasn't moved physically, but the year is now 1973.  Dressed in clothes of the time, he finds papers (along with a car that's apparently his) with his name and rank on them saying that he's been transferred from Hyde to the NYPD precinct where he had been working in 2008. 
Once there he finds that things were quite different back in the 70's.  When they find a fingerprint at a murder scene he's told that forensics will have the report back in two weeks... if they can find a match since the database has to be searched by hand.  DNA analysis and many crime scene techniques that are routine today are unheard of back in '73.

Not only are the investigative methods different, so is standard operating procedure.  When Sam's boss thinks he's found the perpetrator to a crime, he beats him until he confesses and if that doesn't work he has a stash of drugs hidden away that he uses as plants.  Sam is aghast at these techniques and fights them every step of the way, which makes him unpopular with his fellow detectives, to say the least. 

That's the least of Sam's worries however.  He desperately wants to get back to 2008 and reality seems to be fracturing in the time frame that he finds himself.  He turns on the TV to hear doctors talking about his case, saying that he's in a coma and might not pull through.  He sees strange things too, like a kid wearing a t-shirt with the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind on the front.  He sees small robots that look like luna landers occasionally and sometimes they come crawling out of this nose or ears.  Other times people say things to him that only he hears, messages about getting back home, and to be paitent.
He confides in the only female officer in the precinct, Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol) affectionately known as "No Nuts Norris" to the other detectives.  Sam quickly learns to keep his mouth shut around the other detectives though, especially his tough as nails boss Lieutenant Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel).  Slowly though, the other detectives, Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli) and Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy), learn that Tyler knows what he's doing and grudgingly accept the odd outsider.
The show gets a lot of things right.  Of course it helps that they had the UK show to work off of (several of the first 4 or 5 episodes are remakes of the original, but after that this series strikes off on its own) but they still made to make some really good TV.  There's a great scene in the first episode after Sam wakes up in 1973.  He's walking through the streets gawking at the oddly dressed people and antique (to him) cars when suddenly he stops as if someone hit him in the stomach.  He stares off into the distance with a mixture of disbelief and horror.  Eventually the camera switches to what he's seeing:  the Twin Towers dominating in the New York sky line.

The casting is superb.  No one plays a rough guy with a heart of gold as good as Harvey Keitel, and he's fantastic in this show.  If anything he's a bit too good because he steals all the scenes he shares with Jason O'Mara.  His gruff exterior hides and even rougher interior and he play the role to perfection.   Michael Imperioli is also very good and manages to break away from the Sopranos mold quite well.  Wearing outrageous sideburns and a horrendous mustachio he's the junior detective who sees everything in black and white and has a huge chip on his sholder.
The only member of the cast who really does fit in well is Gretchen Mol.  She plays her character with too much cheer and gestures too often.  Practically every time she talks her hands are waiving around to emphasize her point.  I never thought of her as a cop, more like a department mascot.  It's little wonder the detectives didn't take her seriously.
The soundtrack to the show is excellent also.  They get off to a very rough start in the first few episodes (they play the bubble gum song Little Willy by Sweet when chasing a murderer *ugh*) but soon start finding classic 70's songs that both fit the tone and mood of the episode and also tie into it with the lyrics.  One of the better soundtracks to a TV show that I've heard lately.

Most of the shows are stand alone police-procedural detective stories that are both interesting from a mystery point of view and also just to see how things were done in the not too distant past.  They tie in the mystery of what happened to Sam by having him encounter his mother, father, and even himself when he was 4.  This aspect keeps the show unique and propels the main mystery while not interrupting the cop show aspect either.
Most of the episodes are very good, but the show is marred by a handful of exceedingly contrived and stupid installments.  One involves a murdered stewardess who happens to be the exact double of Norris.  So close in fact that she takes the dead girl's place and her roommates don't notice the difference.  Then her bosses send her to a sex party.  Yeah right.
Spoiler Warning:  The rest of this review contains details about the end of an episode and the series itself.  If you'd prefer that the mystery wasn't spoiled, skip down to the technical section.
The penultimate episode is where the show jumps the shark however.  It's one of the worst episodes in a good series that I've ever seen.  (And that's saying a lot.)  It's told in a round about fashion so that you don't have all of the pieces at once, but when you do it's totally idiotic. 
After the leader of a local gang, McManus, shot two police officers the rest of the unit is pounding the streets looking for him.  (That includes one of the cops who was shot in the torso.  Apparently that's not a serious would since twice in the series men have walked out of the hospital hours after being treated and had no side effects whatsoever.  They don't even seem to be in pain.)  At three in the morning, Sam finds the scumbag (while no one else in the city can) and shoots him in cold blood.  (This is the guy who says that people should do everything by the book remember.)  The only thing is that he's out of bullets (why?) so an FBI agent, Frank Morgan, who just happens to be standing behind Sam shoots the scumbag.  (Whew!  Good thing he was there.  Apparently everyone knew where this guy was!)  But Holy plot twist Batman - Sam then suffers from unexplained amnesia!  (He doesn't even get hit on the head... it just happens.)  He wakes up in bed the next morning thinking that he was playing checkers until dawn with his hippy neighbor and goes to work.  When they find the body of the gangster, Sam even suggests that Hunt was the killer. 

Okay, so Frank Morgan shows up to investigate for the FBI.  Being a criminal mastermind (he killed the McManus because he was afraid the crook would finger him if caught) Morgan really, really wants the police to looking the murder he committed.  Not only is he confident, but apparently he's not worried about Sam saying "Hey, that's the guy that did it!  I was standing there when he pulled the trigger."  Good thing he had amnesia.
Morgan decides to frame Tyler and hires an actor to give a false statement to the police and ID's Sam as the shooter.  I know actors aren't supposed to be smart, but come on.  Surely he'd know that lying to the police, and framing one of their own would get him in really, really, big trouble.  (Was he going to testify in court too?  Didn't he think someone would find out he wasn't really the doctor that he was posing as?)  So then Frank tosses Sam's apartment and plants the murder weapon there.  When confronted Sam goes to his hippy neighbor's apartment and finds it is totally empty.  Not only is she not there, but neither are there any furnishings, food, clothes, or even a rug.  Everyone thinks she's just a figment of his imagination, but it turns out her ex-boyfriend needed some money so he stole everything and she hadn't had time to buy anything else.  Or report it to her policeman neighbor. 
So Sam get locked up, Hunt gives him a key to his cell and so Tyler walks out of the station.  He roughs up one of McManus' men and finds out that the mobster was afraid of someone connected to a certain toy company.  He goes and checks out their offices and discovers that a launch party for their newest toy is underway and the bartender is none other than the 'doctor' who ID'ed him as the killer.  Imagine the odds that the same actor would be at the party just as Sam arrived!  But Morgan is there too.  His spider-sense must have cued him in that Sam was going to the toy company because there's no other reason for him to be there.  Anyway, instead of shooting him (Sam is an escaped prisoner and did have a gun at the time... a Fed could surely talk himself out of that one) he decides to take Sam up to the roof and make him jump.  Morgan then talks to him for just long enough for the rest of his squad to show up and save the day. 
The only thing worse than that is the final ending to the series.  Even the creators realized it was horrid since they semi-apologize for it in one of the extras.  They admit that half of the audience won't like it, but then people don't like endings in general.  What?  People don't like endings?  I think they've confused that with the fact that people don't like BAD endings.  I won't give it totally away, but I'd advise you to just stop when there's about ten minutes left in the last episode. The series plays better that way.
The DVD:

The 17 episodes that make up this series come on four DVDs which are housed in a single-width case.  There are two overlapping discs on each side.
The DD 5.1 audio was very good, especially for a TV show.  The classic rock tunes filled the room when the appeared and the dynamic range was excellent.  These sounded a lot better than they did when I first heard them from the single tiny speaker on my transistor radio (naturally).  The dialog was also clean and clear and the audio effects never overpowered the rest of the soundtrack.  A very solid sounding show. 
Like the audio, the 1.78:1 anamorphic image was very good.  In the first episode when Sam arrives in 1973 everything was oddly tinted, like it was shot through a very light yellow filter.  This was a directorial choice and while it made part of the show look bad, like a slightly faded color show from the 70's, it's understandable why they did that.  Luckily it only last for a short while and the rest of the show looks great.  The detail is nice and the colors are properly saturated.  There weren't any digital defects worth noting.
This set has a good amount of extra material, especially for a show that only lasted 17 episdoes.  First off there are commentary tracks to four episodes sprinkled through the series:  Out Here in the Fields, The Man Who Sold the World, Things to Do in New York When You Think You're Dead, and the series finale Life is a Rock.  The last one was quite interesting, with the creators discussing the ending of the show (defending it for the most part) and talking about the hints that had been sprinkled through the show.  Of course there were a lot of false clues that are just dismissed out of hand, which makes the ending less than satisfying.  If the red herrings aren't explained away, what is the point of providing hints.
To Mars and Back is a 15 minute behind-the-scenes look at the show.  The cast and crew talk about the setting and the challenges of shooting a show set in 1973.  For those who want another look at what filming the series is like, there is Sunrise to Sunset with Jason O'Mara.  This condenses a day in the life of the lead character into about 10 minutes.  They show him doing stunts, filming scenes, etc.
Flashback: Lee Majors Goes to Mars brings the star of The Six Million Dollar Man (a popular series back in the 70's) to the set of Life on Mars.  Okay.  Ummm, yeah.
The bonus section is wrapped up with 10 deleted scenes, which are nice to see but don't really add much to the series, and a short gag reel.
Final Thoughts:
While this wasn't as good as the British series of the same name, it was an interesting show that deserved to last longer than a single season.  There were a couple really dumb episodes, and the series finale leaves a lot to be desired but even taking that into account it was a very good show.  Add the great image and audio quality and ample extras and it's easy to recommend this set.
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