ABC Studios // 2008 // 731 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // September 29th, 2009
"Take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy /
Oh man, wonder if he'll ever know, he's in the best selling show" -- David Bowie
Let's address the 800lb gorilla sitting on the couch: Fans of Mathew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah's original UK series can put down their pitchforks and torches. This is not the "poorly conceived" remake they accused it of being. The American version of Life on Mars, as given to us by Josh Appelbaum, Scott Rosenberg, and André Nemec, has a life and energy all its own. Drawing upon a rich history of '70s Americana, we view these well-established characters and circumstances through a very different lens. Where the BBC series felt like being strapped into a straight jacket and thrown onto runaway train, the ABC series feels like wearing your favorite sweatshirt on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, sitting next to your shrink, who engages you in counseling while waiting in line to ride it again. It's an immersively controlled but familiar environment, with moments of excitement, great word play, laughter, and a lot of atmosphere to take in. Unfortunately, not enough people dug the vibe and ABC quickly pulled the plug...which sucks, because once you finish this 17 episode set, you're gonna want more.
Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara, Resident Evil: Extinction) is not having a great day. His girlfriend/partner Maya (Lisa Bonet, The Cosby Show) has been kidnapped by a psychopathic killer and, on the way to rescue her, he's hit by a car. The good news is he walks away from the accident relatively unharmed. The bad news is he finds himself wandering the streets of New York City circa 1973. Confused? Not as nearly as much as Sam is. He owns a '71 Chevy Chevelle complete with 8-track player, has a '73 drivers license, police badge, and a detective job in the same precinct he left behind in 2008. The only problem is he's apparently a new transfer from a town upstate called Hyde, which he's never been to. At best, Sam assumes he's dead and been sent to Heaven/Hell/Purgatory, got caught in some freak time travel or mind control experiment, been sucked into some alternate universe, abducted by aliens and taken to a different planet, is suffering from a brain tumor, lying in a coma dreaming, or gone completely insane. Try wrappin' your brain around that one. Opening up to the two new women in his life -- policewoman Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 to Yuma) and neighbor Windy (Tanya Fischer, Assassination of a High School President) -- Sam begins to adapt to his surroundings and play the hard-nosed NYPD detective he's always been, while desperately searching for answers on how to get back to his own time.
Those of us who lived through the '70s recall a certain warmth and familiarity about our cop shows and crime dramas -- The Rockford Files, Kojak, Cannon, Starsky and Hutch. It wasn't until Hill Street Blues hit the beat that things took a darker turn. When NYPD Blue was unleashed, the gloves came off. Now, with the CSI, Law and Order, and NCIS franchises, every episode is ripped from the headlines, a far cry from the escapism entertainment we once knew. The showrunners for Life on Mars understand that and take great pleasure in transporting us back to an era, where racism, sexism, and political incorrectness were strangely endearing and played with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, where any resulting offense was brushed off with a sheepish grin and an apology (well intentioned or not).
Nowhere is this better captured than in the performances of Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) as Detective Ray Carling and Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs) -- in his first television role -- as Lieutenant Gene Hunt. You could not find two better actors to inhabit this era, personifying everything good and bad about 1970's New York cops. These great character actors chew scenery and ooze sheer joy with every line read. What made the BBC series so compelling was the volatile, combative relationship between Hunt (Philip Glenister) and Sam (John Simm). That story is somewhat diffused here, with Keitel and O'Mara eschewing their predecessors, in favor of a dysfunctional father and son vibe, thus building a more balanced ensemble. Jonathan Kelton (October Road) is given an opportunity to play a more well-rounded Chris than his comic relief UK counterpart (Marshall Lancaster), and Getchen Mol (Annie "No Nuts" Norris) is elevated to the starting five from more of a B-storyline player. And it works. We also get absolutely beautiful performances from Tanya Fisher as Sam's hippy-dippy-neighbor and sometimes sex partner Windy (they didn't utilize her nearly enough) and Jennifer Ferrin's rock solid turn as Rose Tyler, Sam's mom circa 1973. The one person I could have done without is Dean Winters as Sam's dad, only because he's essentially playing the same character we've seen on Rescue Me and 30 Rock.
For the purpose of full disclosure, the show does take some time to find its footing. In reworking original BBC storylines to fit the events of New York and America in 1973, there were some bumps. In fact, if you believe Wikipedia, the series went through a complete overhaul before ever seeing the light of day. As the story goes, wunderkind producer David E. Kelly was originally at the helm, with the show set in Chicago, and shot in Los Angeles. John Simm and Philip Glennister were approached to reprise their roles, but both turned down the offer. Instead Star Trek: TNG's Colm Meaney was cast as Gene Hunt, fellow Irishman Jason O'Mara brought on as Sam, and Twilight's Rachelle Lefevre hired to play Annie. ABC hated it, ordering a shutdown and retooling. Jason was the only cast member to survive the bloodbath. Thank god. His cast and crewmates have nothing but great things to say about working with Jason, and his earnest, heartfelt portrayal of Sam -- with a touch of Martin Riggs / Lethal Weapon thrown in for good measure -- drives the heart and soul of the show.
But I digress...
The writers room did a fantastic job with their research, crafting adventures that are of the time, and yet play off our modern Law & Order expectations, leveraging the strengths of the cast with humor, intensity, tension, and love. These characters pay deference to the well-established archetypes of their predecessors but are given room to live and breathe as Americans. The same holds true for the general episodic template, with a few modifications. Like the original, music plays a critical role in underscoring the show's emotional core (see the sidebar under "Accomplices" for a site that details the series soundtrack). But whereas the original had more paranormal, Twin Peaks-esque undertones, this version takes a sci-fi thriller slant to Sam's unique circumstances. Gone are the regular conversations between the two timelines, replaced with more internal soul searching, triggered by environmental clues and the presence of specific people in Sam's new life. The plan was to let the stories inhabit the '70s, without commenting on the era; and yet the parallels and stark contrasts between the two times are often brilliant and sobering. What's more, they one-up the BBC version, with astonishing production values. We are literally sent back to the '70s -- the hair, the clothes, the sets, the props, and the mind-numbing level of detail found in every frame. NYC looks beautiful. The lighting, camera angles, and ethereal look, all play to the uncertainty of where Sam is and why he's there. Not to mention we get some of the best chase scenes ever created for television, reverent to the decade, but leveraging the knowledge and skill of today's production teams.
So far, so good. Right? Yeah, until they got screwed by the network.
The first four episodes were decent, but the cast had yet to completely gel and the stories remained a bit pedestrian. Come Episode 5, "Things to Do in New York When You Think You're Dead," they hit pay dirt and everything clicked. I mean everything. From the guest appearances of Edi Gathegi as the young version of Sam's 2008 precinct Captain and mentor, Whoopi Goldberg as a Black Panther organizer/disc jockey, and Jesse J. Perez as a wrongly accused man hunted by police and an outraged community, to the plot twists, the music, and the cinematography, the series had earned its stripes. Two episodes later, just before Thanksgiving, ABC put them on hiatus. Talk about killin' a buzz. The show returned to a new time slot in late January, still juiced by its newfound energy, but lacking the audience the network wanted for a pickup. By mid-March, the producers were notified of their cancellation, and scrambled to wrap up the season-long story arc in a series finale. At least they were given the opportunity. Some shows don't even get that.
Those who believe the polarizing finale -- which revealed the truth behind Sam's temporal displacement -- was pulled out of the writers collective ass at the 11th hour will be surprised to learn the big reveal was planned from the very beginning to wrap Season One. There were three elements Sam needed to meet in order to be allowed to return "home," the last of which was to kill Gene Hunt, thus laying the groundwork of all of Season Two. Wasn't meant to be. What we're left with are about 730 minutes of quality television and a great ride.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer reflects the show's original 720p broadcast presentation with full 5.1 surround. The color palate exhibits the stark contrast between the cold, clinical, steel blues and greys of 2008 with the warm, embracing oranges, browns, and yellows of 1973. The soundscape is fairly dialogue centric but does make good use of the surrounds during the action set pieces and the classic rock/pop soundtrack. I would love to have seen the show presented in HD, but it might have given away some of the production tricks used to bring the '70s back to life.
As for bonus materials, there's a bunch, but I wouldn't call it robust collection...
Four Episode Commentaries
Well worth a listen, for gaining background on the series, the respect everyone has for the original, and the logistical challenges of producing a period piece every eight days.
* Ep. 01: "Out Here in the Fields," with producers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec
* Ep. 05: "Things to do In New York when You Think You're Dead," with actor Jason O'Mara and producers Scott Rosenberg and Michael Katleman
* Ep. 07: "The Man Who Sold the World," with Andre and Josh
* Ep. 17: "Life is a Rock," with Jason, Josh, Scott, and Michael (who also directed this episode)
Deleted Scenes (16 min)
10 scenes cut from -- Ep. 3 featuring Tanya Fisher, and a freaky Annie moment with Gretchen Mol; Ep. 5 featuring Edi Gathegi; Ep. 8 featuring Michael Aronov; Ep. 10 featuring scantily clad groupies and Maggie Siff; and a bit of mystery building embellishment from the series finale.
To Mars and Back (16 min)
Interviews with showrunners, cast, and crew about adapting such a high profile series while making it your own, and the joys of working in New York.
Sunrise to Sunset with Jason O'Mara (10 min)
A day in the life of a series lead, shot during the final week of production. Highlight: Jason overrides the call sheet to do his own stunt and winds up getting shot.
Spaced Out: Bloopers from the Set (3 min)
Lots of facial reactions, line flubs, and crackups. Meh.
Flashback: Lee Majors Goes to Mars (8 min)
The weirdest one of all: a set tour with Jason O'Mara and the Six Million Dollar Man, 1973 superstar Lee Majors, complete with '70s pop-up facts. Well-intentioned, I'm sure, but Lee and Jason both look a bit uncomfortable.
Oh yeah, the packaging is one those stacker sets, which I'm not particularly fond of. Consider yourself warned.
Is it groundbreaking television? No, but Life on Mars is a deftly executed period piece, a showcase for the core ensemble, and proof there is more energy and fun to be mined from police procedurals than the same old tired crap we're subjected to week in and week out.
Not guilty, cupcake. Now get your weaselly ass out of my squad, before I knock your teeth in.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ABC Studios
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 731 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* IMDb: Life on Mars (US)
* IMDb: Life on Mars (UK)
* Music Video: David Bowie's "Life on Mars"
* Life on Mars Soundtrack