Welcome to another edition of Channel Chaser! Today, I would like to take a trip back to 2008–and maybe even a little bit further–to discuss a lost gem of American popular culture; the short-lived but spectacular series Life on Mars.
Life on Mars premiered on ABC in the fall of 2008 as yet another Americanized spin-off version of a foreign program: in this case, the British show of the same name. The series quickly garnered near-universal praise for its visual artistry, acting, and premise, which centers on Sam Tyler: a police officer working in modern-day New York City who is hit by a car and wakes up in the year 1973. Tyler, confronted by a time and place whose technology, culture, and ideas of morality are so disparate from his own that he likens it to having “landed on a different planet,” struggles to fit in with his 70s coworkers at the fictional 125th Precinct and continue to solve crimes and keep the city safe, all while searching for a way back home.
The first thing Life on Mars has going for it is its all-star cast, headlined by Jason O’Mara as the time-traveling detective Sam Tyler. As Tyler, O’Mara does a stunning job of being serious, silly, and sympathetic all rolled into one, and creates a compelling persona of a man who is totally lost and near insanity, but able to cope with his situation thanks to his drive to continue doing what he does best; catching bad guys.
As an immigrant to the much less politically correct environment of 1973, Tyler often comes into conflict with his squad mate and nemesis Ray Carling. Played by Michael Imperioli, Carling is everything Tyler is not: ambitious, hot-tempered, bitterly sarcastic, and prejudiced to the extreme. Despite his essentially unlikeable nature, Carling often delivers the funniest lines of dialogue, replete with 70s slang, and acts as a foil to Sam’s cautious, methodical, and self-righteous attitude; essentially the perfect character that you love to hate.
Veteran actor Harvey Keitel completes this top trio as Tyler and Carling’s immediate superior, Lieutenant Gene Hunt; a rough and rugged bulldog of a man whose skill at drinking and fighting is only matched by his success at closing cases, usually thanks to intimidation, evidence tampering, and other questionable practices that Tyler objects to. Even though Tyler and Hunt rarely see eye to eye, they share a strong sense of justice and eventually develop a close, almost father-son relationship.
Other characters include Policewoman Annie Norris, portrayed by current Boardwalk Empire star Gretchen Mol. Annie, who as a female officer often struggles with the sexist attitudes of her male coworkers, develops a special bond with Tyler due to his more enlightened views and her concern about his delusions of 2008, and serves as his on-again, off-again romantic interest. Television newbie Jonathan Murphy plays Chris Skelton, the 125th’s youngest detective, who is good-hearted and friendly, but also painfully naïve at times, and serves as the show’s voice of the “young generation” as compared to the mostly older, more skeptical detectives.
For people who may be repelled by the humdrum drama of a traditional cop show, Life on Mars spices up the genre with a healthy helping of fantasy elements. True to the show’s name, Tyler often finds himself stalked by phantom robotic Mars rovers that show him flashes of images from his childhood during the 70s; events that he then experiences again in a different context as an adult. He is also monitored and manipulated by Project Ares: a shadowy government group that seems to have plans for him and knows that he is a man out of time. Tyler has frequent run-ins with his own past, including his father, who abandoned him and his mother when he was young, and shows up again with dark secrets that throw Tyler’s beliefs and values into question. Many episodes also explore the mystery of what Tyler is doing in 1973 in the first place, as several crimes and circumstances he investigates pose different possibilities, from mental breakdown to coma dreams and even alien abduction.
In addition to plot elements, the technical values of the show are similarly out of this world. The painstaking detail with which Life on Mars recreates and reexamines life in 1970s New York makes the show so extraordinarily vibrant and life-like that it is a treat to watch and a true work of art. The show also utilizes music brilliantly, drawing on classic 70s tunes for its soundtrack and mixing them with the story and what is on the screen in a manner that makes perfect sense to the viewer, and greatly adds to the entire experience.
As if this wasn’t enough, humor also abounds in Life on Mars; most of it stemming from Tyler’s knowledge of future events, which he often exploits for his own benefit. Modern-day pop culture names such as Tom Cruise, Bono, and even Luke Skywalker (“it’s Navajo”) are among Tyler’s aliases that he uses when working cases. In one episode, Tyler attempts to talk down a suicidal investor who lost all his money when a company trying to market an early version of cell phones crashed. In response to his continued insistence that the jumper is “not crazy, just ahead of your time,” the other detectives simply shake their heads and look at each other in confusion. As Ray Carling observes, “Who would ever want to carry around a telephone?”
My Rating: 4.5/5
While it may only have lasted for a single season on network television, Life on Mars is one reality trip you definitely shouldn’t miss out on. The show’s mix of satire, serious drama and science fiction, combined with the very real emotional arcs and development of its characters, and just the right touch of nostalgic sentimentality, make it a joy to watch over and over again. And watch out for the finale; it’s sure to blow your mind.
Channel Chaser is written by Kyle Robertson. You can check out more of his work on his website.