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STUDIO: ABC Studios
RUNNING TIME: 731 minutes
- To Mars and Back
- Sunrise to Sunset with Jason O’Mara
- Spaced Out – Bloopers!!
- Deleted Scenes
- Selected Episode Commentaries
A mathematical formula: CSI + TJ Hooker + Great Cast + Good Writing = Cancelled by ABC
Jason O’Mara, Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Michael Imperioli’s Wicked Friggin’ Mustache, Gretchen Mol and that woman who really did a number on John Cusack.
By-the-book supercop Sam Tyler is hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up in 1973. The 35 year journey joins Tyler with the 125th precinct including grizzled Lieutenant Gene Hunt, (Harvey Keitel) loudmouth Detective Ray Carling, (Michael Imperioli) and the beautiful Policewoman Annie Norris. (Piece of wood . . . uh, I mean Gretchen Mol) Tyler works with the team to solve cases while intermittently caring about returning to 2008, all to a killer eclectic soundtrack of Almost Famous’ leftovers.
Gretchen Mol finally decided to watch herself in Rounders.
I start the review with the typical lament of the cancelled program: Why’d this have to be cancelled when it was so darn good? It’s rare to get really original programming (I’m aware that the show is actually not original per se, but a remake of a British TV program of which I am not at all familiar, but its concept and execution are far more original than another N:CSIS or reality show) and even more rare to find original programming that is engaging and interesting. Not to mention, Life on Mars takes an overdone television staple (the police procedural) and injects with an entirely new energy and sensibility.
The series itself is very enjoyable and well made. It combines the modern aesthetic of obsessive police procedurals with good old-fashioned campiness and throws in a dash of sci-fi for good measure. This may not sound like the most compatible of sensibilities to mesh, but for the most part Life on Mars blends all 3 together quite well. It surprisingly finds the correct balance and mixture of all 3 tones, which happily enough is not an equal-parts-each formula, but rather dwells heavier on the camp side than the other two. It’s quite refreshing, actually, to watch a procedural that is in no way gritty. The only major misfires seem to come when dwelling too much on the sci-fi aspect of the show.
What really makes the blending of tones work for the show is its casting and its characters. The show wisely takes its focus and places it wholly on the characters as opposed to each episode’s case. In other procedurals the main character is each week’s mystery, here the mystery takes a backseat to how each character functions in relation to the case being solved. It’s a slight change in focus that makes all the difference in enjoying the show. It also allows the show to go to nearly ridiculous lengths without batting an eye or feeling as if it’s gone too far.
Hold on, there, pal. I wanna see if this Natalie Wood chick can swim.
The show revels in placing its characters in frequent ludicrous situations disguised as each week’s case. Sure, there are a couple “basic” cases, but for every mundane catch-a-killeresque plot you’ve got a guy holding an entire hospital as hostage, Bowie-lite rock stars and their groupies being abducted by aliens, cops going undercover as swingers and inter-precinct competitions that end with the needless deaths of civilians. Placing them in these extreme situations and then watching how each character reacts is where the show really excels, and each character keeps even the most boring case or the most preposterous of cases interesting and grounded. It also uses the show’s time period to the same means as the cases: how do these characters interact with certain facets of life in the 70s? The era is never a means to an end, but rather a catalyst for the characters’ discoveries. Sure, the show gets rather formulaic in its cases – the red herring is always the actual guilty party, and people are saved frequently by some type of deus ex machina – but the show is about the characters within the formula, not the other way around. That really does make all the difference.
A good amount of credit must be given to the actors for making this all work. The show’s tonal dissonance would sink it if not for the cast. Jason O’Mara is charismatic and engaging as Sam Tyler. As the glue that holds the whole show together he does very well. Michael Imperioli is fantastic as the ignorant Det. Carling, and he actually makes dialogue like “That skeez Muldoon is wearing to nickels for a necktie,” sound good. Gretchen Mol is for the most part vapor that passes in and out of frame unnoticed. To her defense, her character Annie Norris gives her next to nothing to do. Annie Norris is the Bella of Life on Mars: she is defined only by her interaction with men. As a love interest for O’Mara she succeeds as much as she can, and she actually pops when given scenes to play with Imperioli. But other than these brief moments she continues her path of condensation. Then there is Harvey Keitel bringing an effusive sense of joy to the role of cantankerous and violent Lieutenant Gene Hunt. Keitel brings the sensibility of a 4 year-old playing violent make-believe with his friends to the role, and this sense of fun is addictive to watch. To an extent, it seems so caustic it’s almost dangerous. There’s just something that is so much fun about seeing Keitel beat a man at the interrogation table. There’s also fun in him telling a suspect, “Honey, how about I lock you up under charges of dumb slut with no future?” I cannot overstress how fun Keitel is to watch on this show.
O’Mara and Keitel are given an antagonistic relationship that would surely have grown if the show had progressed. As it is, it feels stunted. The writers shoehorn in moments of mutual appreciation and try to rush a father/son type relationship that would have been better if the series had had full time to develop it. The same is to be said of most of the character’s relationships with one another, but it is most apparent in O’Mara’s relationship with Keitel, and his romantic interest in Mol. Both of these get shortchanged in the rush to tie up loose ends with the show.
I was trying really hard to think of a good caption here, but realized, “What more could I add?” I’ll let these images speak for themselves.
What the actors can’t help at all is when the series makes its few missteps and the balance shifts away from the characters and onto a completely unnecessary overarching mythology for the series. The mythology seems woefully out of place in the series not because it doesn’t seem to fit for the show (again, pretty much anything could fit in this show . . .) but because it is outside their traditional modus operandi of focusing on the characters. The mythology involves the “why” to Tyler’s time-jump, bringing in mysterious robots, a shadowy corporation called Dharma . . . oops, I mean Aries, Wizard of Oz allegories and other time travelers. With time perhaps the mythology would have evolved into an organic part of the storytelling, but as it is it always felt like a halting diversion from the interesting characters meant to ape Lost’s successes. (Down to the dissonant violin music anytime something eerie happens) As well, the mythology is never omnipresent, but rather sporadic. One episode it’s vital that someone could be pulling the strings behind Sam’s time-travel, but then for the next two episodes it’s completely unmentioned and unimportant. The mythology adds nothing substantial to the series except for major mysteries that are hastily resolved in an unsatisfactory manner.
Speaking of the unsatisfactory ending, I’m going to spoil the dickens out of the series in the next paragraph, so skip it if you do not desire spoilers.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The series ends with Sam Tyler waking up in a spaceship on his way to Mars. The entire series has been a dream induced by the ship, and his jump to 1973 was just a glitch in the program. His fellow shipmates are Mol, Imperioli and Keitel, and they are all woken up to a ham-fisted version of the “And you were there, and you were there, and you were there,” scene from The Wizard of Oz. Keitel is really O’Mara’s father and he was using the dream to work out his daddy issues! Awwww. I wish the series had continued so that we could see where they were actually going with the overarching mystery. Like I said, the mythology was my least favorite part of the show, but given time I think they could have made something interesting of it. As it is, it’s very disjointed from the rest of the narrative and with this ending it’s all very unsatisfying. The “all a dream” ending must be the lazy way the writers all rushed to pull the show together; I can’t imagine this show going 6 seasons to that denouement. As the ending is, it ties things together, I guess, but it also kind of sucks. Nothing is really explained or answered, because it doesn’t have to be . . . it’s all a dream! What makes it worse is the last few episodes start really gearing up for an exciting and interesting climax involving Tyler going slowly insane and Tyler’s child self being kidnapped by his criminal father. The chase for little Sammy simply leads to an anticlimax of Newhart-ian proportions. Except Newhart was awesome. Darrell, Darrell and Darrell are sweet.
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Apart from the unsatisfying mythos and ending, the series makes few major mistakes in its narrative. It is wise enough to jettison the annoying hippie neighbor early in the season, and evolves its focus onto more interesting characters, such as Tyler’s mother. In fact, the show doesn’t shy away from the trippier aspects of time-travel, and frequently places Sam Tyler in direct contact with his younger self, his mother, absent father and even has him bag the babysitter he had a crush on as a child. (Super-hot ex-April O’Neill Paige Turco) That, my friends, is the reason Ira Feldman invented time travel: To bag old babysitters. (Except that my babysitter was Mr. O’Leary from down the street with the white stubble and who smelled like pork rinds) The show mostly just flies along giving homage to its kitschy roots and throwing its characters into absurd situation after absurd situation and letting it play out. And you know what? It’s very entertaining, but rarely sacrificing character and good storytelling for that entertainment.
Forget being a grouch, Oscar was a frigging douchebag.
It’s entertainment that has a very old-school feel. Much of that is due to the excellent production design. The 1973 New York they create is intricately detailed. They manage to create environments that seem large and expansive, as opposed to many period shows that feel limited and constrained. And it’s not just the props and sets that feel right in the era, but every once in a while they’ll break out filmmaking techniques that add flourishes with a nice period feel. The beginning of the eleventh episode features my favorite, using freeze-frames and slow motion in an exciting and entertaining opening that is one of the best I’ve seen in quite some time. Or a sequence where Keitel slamming a suspect’s head repeatedly against a squad car is interspersed with a cop being resuscitated in the hospital: The head slams and defibrillator shocks are in perfect sync. There’s also a good amount of action in the show, but it’s vintage action. It’s mostly hand-to-hand combat or foot-chases that feel ripped out of the 1970s. It’s nice to see that kind of bare-knuckle faux-brutality on screen, and it makes the action stand out in comparison to other shows. The dialogue, as well, somehow walks the line of being campy yet completely natural.
There’s one more element of the show that really must be addressed, and that is the excellent use of music. There are a few needle drops that are a bit too on-the-nose for my preferences, but the rest is used brilliantly; however, the original music by Peter Nashel needs special mention. The horn-heavy theme and the Shaft-esque percussion was always spot-on and perfectly evoked Life on Mars’ predecessors. It also added a lot of fun to the show. When Keitel is walking into a makeshift interrogation room wearing wide lapels, white shoes and smirk accompanied by a knock-off of Lalo Schifrin . . . There’s something oddly magical about it all.
All in all, Life on Mars is better than the sum of its parts. I like it more than a procedural, I like it more than a straight-up sci-fi show. Its emphasis on interesting characters really draws the viewer in and makes the premature cancellation all the worse, especially considering the cancellation forces an abridgement of what could have been very interesting television.
Also, Harvey Keitel owns the world.
The artwork features the cast in the show’s trademark orange (huh? Since when?) and lets us know that it stars half of Harvey Keitel’s face. (The other half was doing press for National Treasure) The special features are pretty basic: a couple different versions of the traditional production diary type doc, and a lengthy promo reel. There’s selected commentaries for a few episodes, including the pilot and the finale, but the finale offers more of a “We loved this show” aspect as opposed to “We would have done this if . . .” which would have interested me more. There are also bloopers, which I’ve never understood all that much, but if you get your jollies off of watching people repeatedly break character, than this will entertain you greatly. The worst of the special features, though, features Lee Majors – who has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SHOW – coming and taking a tour of the set. The awkwardness of watching a 1970s star meander the 1970s era set looking about 70 years old while playing pop-up video cannot adequately be described in print. It’s a special feature that sucks joy from your soul for 7 minutes, especially when Majors begins talking about how advanced cell phones are nowadays and goes full out Andy Rooney: “Oh, I’ve got my phone, I’m-a gunna take yer picture!” I do have to give it up to those who designed the menus for the discs, though. It’s a lot of really fun and bright retro-themed art that really captures the mood of the show. Overall, the package is far less than this series deserves. Only for that will this be knocked down a bit.