Monday, November 15, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #16: Life on Mars (UK)

Series: Life on Mars (UK)
Years: 2006-2007, 16 1 hr. episodes
Creators: Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, Ashley Pharoah
Stars: John Simm, Philip Glennister, Liz White

The Concept: Ultra-modern Manchester police inspector Sam Tyler is trying to catch a killer in 2006, but he gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. In this alternate reality, he is still on the force, but one that is scientifically and ethically in the dark ages. At first all he cares about is getting back, but he soon notices that the 1973 police cases have strange little connections to his own work back in 2006. He comes to suspect that he will have to solve their mysteries in order to solve his own.
How it Came to be Underrated here: ABC bought up the remake rights, which kept this off DVD in America until the remake had thankfully flopped. The original did appear briefly on BBC America but they would cut every episode down from 60 to 40 minutes!
Sample Episode: 1.1, Pilot
Writer: Matthew Graham
The Story: Sam arrives in the past and solves his first case, but he comes to suspect that if he destroys evidence in the past, he can keep the killer from getting out in his future and killing someone close to him. This is, quite simply, the best damn pilot episode I’ve ever seen of any show ever. It’s so smart and quick and rich that it blows me away every time.

Why It’s Great:
  1. It’s the dark fantasy of every modern white man: would our problems be solved if we could return to the unreconstructed ethos of our fathers’ times, when our gender and our race would have given us more license to run roughshod over everybody else? Or has the newfound sensitivity made the world a better place for everyone, even for us? This is even more exaggerated for a cop. Have they lost power or gained it now that they’ve traded away their right to casually slap suspects around in exchange for modern technology? This show’s outlandish premise cleverly addressed these issues in a dramatic and entertaining way.
  2. This tension generates a dozen different ways for Sam’s principles to get in his way, week after week. This show explored the same idea explored by American shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica”: Do we hang on to our principles because we personally believe in them or because our society demands that we play nice? If those principles became inconvenient, would we fight for them? I think of these as post-9/11 issues, but obviously those who didn’t directly experience that crisis were also grappling with these issues in the mid-‘00s.
  3. Sam is solving crimes in 1973, and also trying to reach out back to 2006 and help them through his actions, and also trying to solve the mystery of his strange journey, but over the course of the show, we realilze that there’s another, sadder mystery at play here: Who killed Manchester? Life has gotten better for individuals, but our cities and economies have rotted out from the inside. Sam is acutely aware, with everything he sees, of what has gotten better and what has gotten worse.
  4. As great as Simm is, Glenister’s neanderthal boss Gene Hunt grew so appealing that he almost succeeded in stealing the show. In fact, after the show ended and Simm’s story concluded, audiences decided that they just hadn’t had enough of Glenister. The BBC did a follow-up show about another cop who was transported back in time to the same cophouse in the ‘80s, called “Ashes to Ashes”. They obviously love their Bowie songs.
What the Remake Did Wrong:
  1. For all of his toughness, Simm’s still a runty little guy, but that’s the whole point. In a civilized society, you can be a bad-ass cop even though you’re not physically tough. The American show had some great things going for it, including Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli as 1973 cops, but the lead was a big bland himbo named Jason O’Mara, who had none of Simm’s smarts, intensity, depth, or runty charm.
  2. Beyond that, the show just generally refused to embrace the complexities or darkness of the original show. It went for “what a goofy situation!” gags, rather than dealing with the central metaphor.
  3. Finally, they felt that they needed to create an even stranger ending. I won’t spoil the UK ending, but I’ll gladly spoil the American version: it turned out in the end that the series was really set on Mars, and the whole show was a virtual reality experiment. How’s that for a beyond-parody example of American literalism?
How Available Is It?: It’s finally available on DVD uncut here in America. Make sure to avoid the remake.
But Don’t Take My Word For It: