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.”