The idea of a British television series being adapted for American screens is really nothing new. Lately a lot has been written about the phenomenon as if it’s some recent trendy invasion of English telly. We’ve been watching British hits since at least the 1970’s. In those days it was the sit-com that got the most attention from across the pond. Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe And Son became All In The Family and Sanford And Son, respectively. Both shows became even bigger hits here in the states and are remembered by more folks on both continents than the originals today. The latest hit from England was The Office. Unfortunately, Life On Mars was never destined to join those Anglo/American success stories.
Detective Sam Tyler (O’Mara) is hot in pursuit of a serial killer who has abducted his partner and lover. When he steps out of his SUV he is struck by an oncoming car. On his ipod David Bowie is singing his obscure track, Life On Mars. When Tyler wakes up he can still hear the song in the background. But this time it’s coming from an 8-track deck in a mint vintage 1970’s car. Turns out there’s a reason the car is so cherry. It’s actually brand spankin’ new, and Tyler is no longer in 2008. It’s 1973. Strangely, he still has his identity here. A police officer identifies the car as his. At his 125th Precinct, he’s recognized as the transfer from Hyde. His disorientation earns him a few introductory sucker punches to the gut by his new boss Lt. Gene Hunt (Keitel) who doesn’t like people coming into his station house barking out orders. It turns out he’s joined a special forces kind of team that also includes Detective Ray Carling (Imperioli) who feels passed over by Tyler. He was in line to be the new second in command. Detective Chris Skelton (Murphy) is a green detective who warms us fastest to Tyler. Also working more or less for the team is policewoman Annie Norris (Mol) better known in the squad as “No Nuts Norris”, because she acts more like a man, believing that a woman can be a detective. It seems whatever powers that have planted Tyler here have thought of everything. He has an apartment with a free spirit hippie neighbor named Windy (Ferrin), appropriately named as she kind of breezes her way in and out of his life. Eventually Tyler decides to temporarily accept his situation, hoping to figure out why he’s here and how he can get back home.
To start with, the show never really plays it straight. While we’re intended to buy the stories, and more important the cases, as if Tyler is really there, there is ample evidence other explanations might apply. He has obvious hallucinations calling his sanity or state of mind into question. He also encounters others who appear to momentarily know who he is and where he’s from. Finally, he even catches glimpses of 2008 on the other side of mirrors and doors. Because this is a single season show, we do get an answer, but I won’t reveal it in this review. I don’t think you’ll be able to completely see it coming.
The series does play to the 70’s cop show nostalgia. Everything from the cars to the hairstyles screams the 1970’s. All of the 70’s cop shows clichés are just as intact. The theme includes some powerhouse wacka wacka typical of shows from that era like Starsky and Hutch. Even more important to the feel of the show is the excellent selection of 70’s pop tunes from such artists as David Bowie, Jim Croce, and Elton John, of course. It all plays to those sensibilities, and in that it is very successful. I’m not so sure I can say the same of the show’s ultimate mythology.
Finally, a special nod has to be given to the cast. Harvey Keitel is a rare occurrence on the small screen, and he eats up plenty of scenes here. He’s perfectly cast in his part. Jason O’Mara tries his best to hide his Irish born accent, but gets to let it flow on one episode where he goes undercover as a native Irishman. He’s fine in the part, but he wouldn’t be a high point for me at all. The best role comes from Michael Imperioli, better known as Chris on The Sopranos. He looks like he just stepped out of Serpico. Great performance from the “kid”. It’s a fun show that worked better than I expected, even if I could easily see that it was quickly getting too convoluted. I wouldn’t mind seeing another 70’s cop show effort somewhere down the line. Maybe without the science fiction angle.
Each episode of Life On Mars is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I imagine it’s all comparable to its HD broadcasts. It’s not really fair to dig into colors, because there was an effort to bring out that 70’s television look at times. That means a lot of earth tones and rather muted colors overall. Too many episodes on one of the discs gives us uneven black levels and compression artifact there.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track works very to carry off the 70’s vintage radio material. The stuff comes out quite well and will have you singing along or lost in some 30 year old memory (if you’re old enough, of course). Otherwise the audio serves mostly the dialog and isn’t all that aggressive in the surrounds.
You get all 23 episodes on 6 discs. The bonus features are scattered throughout the set and are a bit weak this go around.
To Mars And Back: (15:35) You almost get the feeling that they knew this was a single season effort here. Secrets are revealed so stay away until after you’ve seen the whole series. Lots of behind the scenes footage. Cast and crew talk about the show’s ideas. The cast profile their characters. They talk about sticking close to the BBC original, but there is never any footage from that show. Likely it’s a rights issue.
Sunrise To Sunset With Jason O’Mara: (9:34) A day in the life segment with O’Mara’s shooting day. Typical wardrobe to makeup to set type of feature.
Flashback – Lee Majors Goes To Mars: (7:54) O’Mara played host and guide when 70’s icon Lee Majors visited the set. The feature also includes some pop-up trivia.
Spaced Out Bloopers From The Set: (2:43) You guessed it.
Deleted Scenes: There are 10 in all from the entire season. Use the play all function.
I might have to check out the BBC show to see how much of it crossed over to this version. I’m told the “solution” is definitely not the same. I enjoyed it for what it was worth, but am not surprised to see it go. A must see for 70’s cop show fans and transplanted Brits who might be more familiar with the source material. It’s a wacky kinda world “that turns the situation from Bedlam to mayhem”.