Cop Show, Existential Drama, Comic Period Piece -- That's 'Life on Mars'

by J.M. Suarez

2 July 2010

Much like Mad Men unapologetically represents the inequalities of its time period, Life on Mars revels in the lack of political correctness that is an ingrained part of contemporary (that is, 1973) society.
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Life on Mars: The Complete Collection

US DVD: 6 Jul 2010

“My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.”

  – voiceover introduction

The UK series Life on Mars, recently remade into an American version, offers an original premise by taking elements from different genres and melding them into one. Life on Mars is as much a cop show as it is an existential drama as it is a comedic period piece. By blending these varied components and playing with the conventions of all three, the series achieves a unique balance that elevates it above just one kind of story.

As the series begins, Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a detective in 2006. After being hit by a car, he suddenly finds himself in 1973 and the mystery of uncovering what is the true reality of his situation begins. It quickly becomes apparent that the police work of 1973 is nothing like the modern police work Sam is accustomed to 33 years into the future. There are technological deficiencies (no computer databases, portable radios, etc.) and procedural issues (questionable interrogation techniques, lack of protocols, etc.) to contend with, as well as quite a lot of hard drinking both on the job and off. These factors do not even begin to include the blatant sexism and prejudice that permeates all aspects of Sam’s new life. 

Much like Mad Men unapologetically represents the inequalities of its time period, Life on Mars revels in the lack of political correctness that is an ingrained part of contemporary society.  Sam serves as an outsider figure throughout much of the series precisely because of these differences. Even as his methods oftentimes lead them to solving cases, his fellow officers remain suspicious and reluctant about his approach. 

However, Sam does find an ally in Annie (Liz White), a policewoman he confides in and develops feelings for, in spite of his quest to determine what has happened to him and how to return to his old life. It’s a relationship that complicates things for Sam, but adds another layer to his hesitant adjustment to his new life.

As the rest of the department looks down upon Sam’s reasoning and approach in the field, he develops a complex relationship with his DCI, Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Hunt is the classic blustery macho figure that Sam has little experience dealing with in his modern professional life. They reluctantly come to an unspoken agreement that Sam’s methods get results and therefore, Hunt tends to give him room to do his work – although not without plenty of vocal disagreement for the benefit of the rest of the department. The seemingly opposite characters develop a professional and even a personal respect for one another, and their frequently at odds dynamic is a highlight of the series.

What keeps Sam, along with the viewer, unsure of what has happened to him, comes in the repeated images and voices that he sees and hears, ostensibly giving him clues to his strange circumstances. In addition to these odd happenings, Sam is continually confronted with elements of his own life while in 1973. 

Sam would have only been four-years-old, but through his work in various cases, he comes face to face with members of his family, offering a glimpse into a part of their lives he was not privy to, oftentimes leading to more questions. None of these clues are definitive enough to put Sam at ease about his situation or how to get out of it, but it is exactly because of this uncertainty and anxiety that Life on Mars is more than just a straightforward story, or a by-the-numbers procedural. 

The differences between police work 33 years apart feels very obvious at the beginning of the series, but as time passes, Sam becomes if not a willing participant in problematic investigative techniques, then almost resigned to accepting that he cannot change those around him and bring them into the future he is comfortable with. Instead, Sam has to make as many concessions as Hunt and the others make in acknowledging each other’s approaches. It’s this complexity and ambiguity that again, elevates the story and makes Sam more relatable, and in turn also humanizes his fellow officers, making those that could have easily been caricatures into further fleshed out, three-dimensional characters.

Life on Mars successfully turns many of the standard storytelling techniques viewers are accustomed to ‘on its ear’, so to speak, and in doing so, it achieves an originality that makes for a very strong series. The cast is engaging, the writing is smart, and in the end, there is a real satisfaction to its conclusion.

Life on Mars: The Complete Collection contains quite a bit of bonus material including, audio commentaries for all the episodes in series one; several behind-the-scenes featurettes on individual episodes, the music of Life on Mars, production design, and a set tour; two documentaries on the show; and an outtakes reel. The extras add to a better understanding of the show and the thinking behind its eventual resolution.

Life on Mars: The Complete Collection


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