Life on Mars: Series Premiere

Harvey Keitel makes a great entrance in Life on Mars. You expect as much, of course, because he's Harvey Keitel. But it is truly great.

Life on Mars

Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jason O'Mara, Harvey Keitel, Gretchen Mol, Michael Imperioli, Lisa Bonet
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
US release date: 2008-10-09
But the key to the city

Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky.

-- David Bowie, "Eight Line Poem"

Harvey Keitel makes a great entrance in Life on Mars. You expect as much, of course, because he's Harvey Keitel, walking into his first weekly TV series. But it is truly great. Tough guy detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara), inexplicably transported from 2008 to 1973, is throwing himself around his precinct office, furious that he has no computer, that Richard Nixon's portrait is on the wall, that his colleagues have bushy hair and hideous sideburns. "This is my department!" he bellows. "What have you done with it?"

Answer: Lt. Gene Hunt (Keitel), who passes from his office doorway in a low angle, wielding one of those cheap Chinese paper fans against the summer heat. His face is lined, his hair scraggly, his expression brutal. "Surprise me," demands Sam. "What year is it supposed to be?" Exquisitely set up, Gene slams Sam against the wall and speaks: "It's 1973, or, as our Chinese brethren like to call it, the Year of the Fist." Whomp.

As Sam doubles over and Gene lays down his turf law ("You don't ever waltz into my kingdom acting the king of the jungle"), you realize that Life on Mars is not your average cop show. It's not "original" in a traditional sense, being based on the excellent BBC series of the same name (starring John Simm as Sam and Philip Glenister as Gene). But its focus is distinctly strange, more meta than usual, less concerned with cases and cops. Instead, Life on Mars, inspired by the David Bowie song, offers a new perspective on such conventions, looking at cop shows and the anxieties they represent as if from an alien's view. A cop show about cop-showness, Life on Mars is also about contexts, the codes of identity and community, revenge and justice, heroes and villains, even -- not to put too fine a point on it -- time and space.

Sam begins the series in a New York more familiar to viewers (the first incarnation of the American version was set in L.A., notoriously rejiggered and recast, and sent east). In 2008, he's a commitment-phobe trying to make sense of his devotion to his fellow cop and girlfriend Maya (Lisa Bonet). They're tracking a serial killer, a gruesome guy who likes to kidnap young women, hold them for long hours, then leave them un-gagged so he can see their lips as he strangles them. Maya commits the usual bad move, tracking their suspect by herself, inspiring Sam to race to her rescue and oh yes, reconsider just how much he really does love her even though he can't talk about it. Within the first minutes of the series, he's been smashed by a car while running across a street, then whooshed back in time to the same spot -- the same apartment building on the same street -- but in a whole new wide-collared outfit. As he staggers to his feet, a uniform cop approaches. Sam blinks, "I need my cell." The cop squints, "You need to sell what?"

Sam's acclimation to his new condition is speedy, so the show can get down to its proper business. As he explains to his new friend in the department, Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol), he's got three options as to explanation: he's a time traveler, he's insane, or he's in a hospital back in 2008, hallucinating this entire thing. She goes along with these possibilities, noting, however, that a couple of them would mean that she doesn't exist (it's like a revisit to the Holodeck, when Picard as Dixon Hill and the villain Redblock contemplate what' may or may not exist beyond the simulated office door).

As she appreciates what it feels like to be out of time, Annie also provides Sam, decidedly backwards in 2008, with a chance to look almost progressive in 1973. A member of the Bureau of Policewomen (as opposed to an actual cop), Annie is used to skeevy treatment from the guys (who call women "twirls" and her "No-nuts"), and even imagines a future that will be different. However, she also understands her present. When Sam tries to enlist her in an investigation, drawing on her "psychology degree from Portland," she demurs. "The last thing I need is to draw attention to the things I know," she says, "the things that are going to make me an excellent member of the New York Police Department." For now, though, she focuses on what's in front of her -- in years to come and now. "No matter how much you believe you came from the future where this is all so," she sighs, "It's not."

Annie complicates Sam's story in multiple ways, not least being the way she repositions him in relation to his fellow boy detectives. He does his best to keep up the macho front (quickly correcting himself when recalling a first LP purchase, not Hall and Oates, but Led Zeppelin: grrr). His new fellow detectives Ray (Michael Imperioli) and Chris (Jonathan Murphy) laugh at Sam's out-of-joint behavior (he's a "space man"), but also draw on his odd expertise (even with limited technologies, Sam knows to check stomach contents, determine crime scene patterns, seek blood matches).

Sam's primary investigation is his own case, which grants him an overarching Wizard of Oz-y plot: he wants to get home, but he also wants to find the serial killer 35 years early, so he can prevent his apparent kidnapping of Maya. Sam is helped along in this fantasy by the TVs that appear in his background. As episodes of Conrad and Kojak offer models of cop behavior in the '70s, he also catches what looks like a doctor show, and turns out to be a doctor peering in his eyes and talking about his "persistent vegetative state." This idea -- that Sam is experiencing his coma as an "alternate reality" via a TV show -- is wickedly clever. It's a question as to whether Life on Mars can sustain and develop this idea, which is really an investigation of limits. Is originality even possible any more? At least Sam is aware of the challenge. "My mind can only invent so much," he asserts, exasperated with his new location, determined to think his way out. "So I'm gonna walk until I can't think up any more streets or face or arguments or details. There are only so many details."


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.