Diamond in the Rough
BBC America's "Life on Mars"
By Jason Major
Jul 31, 2006

Yet another police procedural… Just what TV needs, right? With the flood of CSIs and Law & Orders and various OCD, big-purse-toting psychics all solving crimes, do we really need another? Well, leave it to those clever Brits to make me beg for more tough cops busting criminals. Life on Mars is such a clever reinvention of the crime drama that I would normally feel guilty about revealing it’s insanely simple, yet clever premise. Luckily, BBC America has beaten me to the punch in all of its ads for this show, so I will go ahead and spoil away.

John Simm plays Sam Tyler, the kind of by-the-book, hard-nosed cop that you’ve seen a million times. Sam is tracking a serial killer through London in 2006 when he has the misfortune of being hit by a rather fast-moving car as the strains of the titular David Bowie song plays in the background. When Sam wakes up, he finds himself on the very same London street except he’s wearing bell-bottoms, the Bowie song now plays from an 8-track tape and it seems as though he has been transported back to 1973. Sam’s badge still says he’s a cop, but he is a stranger in a strange land, lost in a past without cell phones, fax machines, flashy CSIs or even computers.

Not sure if he’s crazy, in a coma or actually back in time, Sam goes back to his precinct only to find it populated with a motley group of ‘70s-era coppers whose attitudes and police procedures seem Neanderthal in comparison to the 21st century tactics that Sam is used to working with. And even as Tyler tries to figure out what the hell is going on, he is forced to deal with these backwards thugs who call themselves cops once it appears that the killer whom Sam was tracking in the future has struck here in the past. Then again, this could all just be a trauma-induced hallucination, right? 

Despite a potentially goofy set-up, Life On Mars effortlessly takes the viewer into this twist on an old formula while keeping the stakes high. Sam spends much of the first episode out of sorts, but as the series progresses Sam begins to settle in to the disco era. However, the show’s main hook is its nagging question: Is any of this real? Every time Sam begins to adjust to his new situation, he experiences strange auditory hallucinations implying that he is actually trapped in a 2006 hospital bed and not in very good condition. Add to that a little creepy girl with a rag doll, and a Jamaican bartender who might be Sam’s subconscious, and it seems extremely possible that Sam is indeed in a coma and drifting away from reality into what could just be a demented fantasy world. Of course, if he is back in time, then maybe Sam can stop his father from abandoning him…  

The deceptively simple fish-out-of-water/time-traveling premise is made all the more enjoyable by a stellar cast who do something that no American police procedural has done since Homicide: Life On Mars actually makes you care about and like the characters solving the crimes. John Simm plays the confusion and fear of his character so naturally that you don’t doubt the conceit for a second. Sam’s “new” boss in this bell-bottomed wonderland is DCI Gene Hunt, played with glorious bravado and an Archie Bunker charm by Philip Glenister. Smoking, drinking and kidney punching his way through suspects and partners alike, Gene Hunt is a Starsky & Hutch cliché on steroids… but in a good way. Liz White plays the sweet, spunky pre-women’s lib police officer Annie Cartwright with whom Sam confides about his temporal-shift. Annie doesn’t exactly believe Sam, but she doesn’t exactly think he’s crazy, either. The rest of Sam’s new police cronies are all distinct characters that embody the era without winking too much at the set-up. 

My one criticism of the show has nothing to do with the series itself. I originally watched the full episodes as they were aired on the BBC, but Life On Mars’ stateside home has inexplicably chosen to cut down the 60-minute episodes to fit BBC America’s hour-long timeslots, a crime made all the worse by the fact that BBC America leaves shows like Footballers’ Wives and Cash in the Attic completely untouched. BBC America’s practice of trimming down some of its shows to fit American broadcast times is ridiculous and pointless. I’m a big fan of the channel, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve rewatched shows on DVD only to say to myself, “Wait… I’ve never seen this part before!” Boo to BBC America on this matter.  

Some of you will probably already know that Life On Mars is being given The Office treatment and adapted for an American audience by none other than David E. Kelley. My recommendation: Watch the original version. Perhaps Kelley will find a way into this show that makes it work out here, but I find it hard to believe that the American iteration will have the talent in front of the camera needed to push through what could end up feeling like a gimmick. In the meantime, the UK Life On Mars has more than enough talent in front of and behind the camera to win over anybody bored with the same old, same old.  

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