While I gave up on the American "Life on Mars" four or five episodes in, for the sake of completism -- and my fondness for the ending of the original series -- I checked out last night's series' finale, and... hoo-boy. Spoilers for both US and UK finales coming up just as soon as I shave my mustache...
So... where to begin? I guess with a quick recap of the UK finale for those who didn't see it, just to point out how strangely and awfully the US ending went wrong.
In the last episode of "Life on Mars" UK, Sam is caught in an ambush with the rest of Gene's team when he suddenly wakes up back in the present. He's told it was all some kind of elaborate coma fantasy, and sees that several figures from that fantasy (notably the Internal Affairs cop trying to bring down Gene) were based, "Wizard of Oz"-style, on people from the hospital. But after being back in his old life for a while, Sam discovers that he doesn't fit in, that he can't really feel anything, that he has no emotional connection to the 21st century anymore. And so -- as the full version of the Bowie song plays, just like it did in the pilot -- he goes up onto the roof of a tall building, jumps off, and...
...finds himself back in 1973, saving Gene, Ray and the others from the bad guys and committed to spending the rest of his existence in this weird place, not caring if it was a fantasy, or Purgatory, or something else entirely.
That is an ending. Whatever problems I may have had with the original show (which, like the remake, sometimes trended too closely to being an actual '70s cop show instead of a pastiche of one), I will always love it for that last episode.
I knew the American producers had a different take on the "mythology" of where/when their Sam was. I wasn't expecting a rehash of the original finale (though, based on the reaction this morning of several disgruntled "Life on Mars" USA fans whom I told about the old ending, they might have been better off copying it wholesale). But I also wasn't expecting anything as dumb and/or as insulting to the viewer as the ending we got.
The short version, if you didn't watch and are just curious how it ended: After a kidnapping case that sees Gene killing Sam's dad to save adult Sam's life, Sam more or less told his mom who he was, Annie (who figured out where Sam was in time to save him) got a promotion to detective, and Sam decided that he was sent back in time to meet and fall in love with Annie, and that he didn't care about ever going back to 2008, at which point he...
...finds himself several decades into our future, waking up from two years of hibernation on a NASA spaceship heading for Mars. He's not a cop from 2008 at all. That's just a fantasy cooked up by the ship's computer to keep his mind occupied during the travel (the astronaut version of Ray, sadly mustache-free, selected an elaborate island sex dream), and the trip back to 1973 was a glitch in the system. "Gene Hunt" is not the name of a person, but the mission they're on to find out if there was ever life on Mars, and Harvey Keitel is on board as Major Tom, astronaut Sam's dad.
Words fail me.
It's one thing to say that 1973 wasn't real, or even that the present-day material wasn't real (as the UK finale briefly suggested in a head-fake to the audience), but to say that neither was real? That none of what the viewer watched for these 17 episodes mattered? That it was all a very literal joke on the series' title?
Well, if I was someone who had actually ridden this particular train from beginning to end, sad that the ratings weren't strong enough to keep the show around, I would be furious about this. As it was, I was pretty mad that I stayed up after "Lost" just to watch it.
And the really maddening thing is that, until the idiotic, obnoxious twist ending, the finale was actually very good. I have to credit some of its power to the extensive use of Elton John's "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" -- like the original finale's use of Bowie on the rooftop, it gave scenes like Sam and Annie's kiss, or even Annie's unlikely promotion, some real weight. And the scene where we see Sam in the present-day, reading "Gulliver's Travels" to an old woman whom we assume to be his mom (as he promised her in 1973), but who turns out to be Annie, was lovely, even if it wound up mattering not at all in the grand scheme of things.
I'd like to think that this was a case of the writers being so frustrated with the cancellation that they were venting their anger at ABC with this stupid ending, but based on how early and often we saw the miniature Mars Rover, I have to assume this was their plan all along, which... wow. Just wow. Even the final shot, of 1973 Gene's leg preparing to step onto the Mars surface, seems less an attempt to give this silly explanation some ambiguity than it feels like someone's idea of a memorable closing image, meaning be damned.
I'm mad. How about you?