Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Life on Mars: What is life, anyway?

I've been lax in blogging about "Life on Mars" this year, for reasons I'll get into after the jump, but now that it's all over, I wanted to talk about the ending, the meaning of the series, Bowie, etc. So spoilers coming up just as soon as I change my name...

Like I said, I had planned to make this show a part of the regular strike blogging rotation, but as I watched each season two episode, my interest began to fade. I don't even know that they were appreciably worse than season one, but I think once the novelty of the idea wore off, it became clear that "Life on Mars" was just a procedural cop show with an anachronistic twist, and that twist wasn't enough most weeks to overcome the procedure-fatigue I've written about so often of late. It was amusing to see what kind of Sipowicz-esque bit of crudeness would escape Philip Glenister's lips, but I had nothing much to say about the episodes themselves. So I figured I'd wait for the finale, find out exactly what was up with Sam, and then write about that.

And now that I know... whoa.

No time travel here, folks. Our boy was just in a coma, and now he's... what, dead? Is 1973 Manchester supposed to be Heaven, or some kind of endless "life flashing before your eyes" fantasy for Sam?

The finale tried to head fake us with the attempt to make Sam think he was actually from 1973, that it was the 21st century that was the fantasy. But given that what we saw of Sam's life in the present so closely resembled the actual present, I knew that was bogus. What are the odds of a guy from 1973 imagining the iPod all on his own? So when he bailed on the shootout in the tunnel and woke up in a modern hospital, I wasn't surprised.

But when Sam, completely adrift and unable to feel anything back in his real life, went up on the roof, the complete Bowie song played again, and he jumped off the roof? Again... whoa.

I can't for the life of me imagine the David E. Kelley version (if it ever gets made at this point) climaxing with the main character committing suicide because his coma life was more appealing than the real thing. American network TV has gotten more daring, but I imagine most American viewers would consider that as big a middle finger as the "Sopranos" finale. But good on Matthew Graham for taking the dark, unexpected way out. I understand there's going to be a spin-off built around Gene Hunt in the early '80s (or the coma version of same); very strange.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I'm glad I stopped watching. Journeyman used the time travel twist to do some neat things with time. This show just didn't. There was one episode where the only anachronistic thing was a Margaret Thatcher reference. If I want boring procedurals, I don't need to go to British television.

Tobias said...

I do think it's interesting that the show's creator and star view the ending differently:

I liked "Life on Mars", myself, but part of that came from the ambiguity of it -- and I do think that the ending, however it was intended, can be read multiple ways. I can see, a few years down the line, people obsessing over the details of this series much as they do for "The Prisoner"...

Anonymous said...

I agree, Alan -- I found this season enjoyable but unspectacular, but I was blown away by the finale. It takes balls to have your main character leap to his death, and the Bowie song was so perfect -- just a great, great scene, even if the rest of the episode, and show, were never quite on the same level.

The much-hyped "mystery" was never, to me, much of a mystery -- it seemed pretty clear to me from the beginning that Sam was in a coma, and the 70s world was all part of his subconscious. I don't feel like the show ever seriously suggested anything else... and in a lot of ways, it was a fairly formulaic series (I was bored out of my mind with the Sam/Annie romance, for example). But the resolution, well, that was flat-out brilliant.

K J Gillenwater said...

That last episode was more moving than anything I've seen on tv in a while. I *loved* this show. And I'm so glad the writers had the guts to end it how they did. Perfect. Just perfect.

I *cried,* people! For the lost 'real' life that he had. For the made-up people in his coma world that were more real to him and more honest than the present reality.

I will admit a few of the strictly procedural episodes were a little dull, but there were some winners in there...the key party episode stands out in my mind. And when Hunt was a murder suspect.

And, of course, I was glued to the tv for the funky bits with the radio talking to him and the creepy tv girl. Disturbing.

By the end I assumed he really was in a coma, but I was still wondering how it would all end.

Nicole said...

Had the finale not been as great as it was, the second series would have been quickly forgotten. However, it was one of those finales that enhanced the series in retrospect.

It's too bad American tv doesn't have the guts to do something like this, but it has become too commercialized to veer out of the usual outcomes. I still get chills thinking about that last scene on the roof, and very few other series finales have created an emotional impact such as this one.

I am getting bored with American television, and find that even the British procedurals have more flair. I have currently been obsessed with Trial and Retribution and it blows Law and Order out of the water. David Hayman can act circles around the L&O cast. It also helps that there are less episodes than your average US series, but maybe that should be the direction, less quantity and more quality.

I am really not sure how the 80s version of Gene Hunt will work, mostly because the likelihood of someone else meeting him in their own personal coma is a difficult premise to believe, but I'll give it a chance for a few episodes anyway.

K J Gillenwater said...

From what I understand, the woman in the 80s series will have been reading Sam Tyler's notes about his funky coma experience...remember at the very end, the voiceover from the beginning of the show he had put on a tape recorder?

So, this woman gets in her own coma situation and with Hunt in her head ends up in an 80s version of the same thing.

I think it will work. But I wonder if they will have a similar gutsy ending?

I'm looking forward to the American version of "Life on Mars," just because I would like a peek into real 70s police stations. But I don't think they will go with that brilliant ending...would they? Most American TV shows don't have definite endings in mind.

Tobias said...

Also interesting to note that -- unless my memory's shot -- Sam's unwillingness to act in 1973 mirrors his pause in the first episode of season one, just before he's hit by the car...

Dan said...

Strange that many people here didn't seem to like s2. It was more intertwined with sci-fi elements than s1 was! Oh well. I know what you mean about it being "a boring procedural" but, trust me, in the UK Life On Mars was a breath of fresh air! We have "boring procedurals" on most days!

Re: the finale. Emotionally, it worked. Logically, it was total bullshit. Sam wakes up from his coma. Fine. That's what we expected. But the writers wanted a twist, so had him die to return to 1973. Er, so 1973 was actually heaven? You can go to heaven via a coma? For me, it would have worked better if Sam had just died and that was it. The tacked-on "1973 Afterlife" scene was just bizarre.

As for Ashes To Ashes (the spin-off that starts on the BBC in a few weeks), it'll be fun to see Gene Hunt in an 80s context... but I can't see how it can sustain any mystery... as the viewers all KNOW this 80s world must be a coma/afterlife. But then... where the hell is Sam?

I know, geeky nitpicking at heart -- but I expected more. Great twist on the cop genre, but the writers didn't tie everything up neatly and have undermined their own spinoff in the process!

Anonymous said...

Yeah Dan, I agree with you. I thought Season 2 was much better than Season 1 (frankly, I can't remember much of those episodes aside from the last one). I liked both Simm and Glenister better the second time through. The Sam - Annie relationship coming to a head was lovely, as was Liz White's understated performance.

K J Gillenwater said...

That last scene actually made the most sense to me. You can imagine whatever you want about the 1973's somewhere between living and death, or it is 'heaven.'

At the very end, you can clearly hear some emergency worker telling Sam to 'hang on.' So he is alive for awhile after he jumps off the roof.

To me, it doesn't matter. The point of that ending got to me...because he was more at home with the world inside his head than real people. He was emotionally disconnected in his real life, but in his coma life, he had friends and people who had life to them. Why wouldn't he try to get back?

What I thought most fascinating was the 1973 Morgan trying to convince Sam he was where he was supposed to be...that he was suffering from amnesia. It was a complete parallel with what happened when he returned to 2006.

Anyway, I think it was brilliantly done.

Toby O'B said...

Now I'm hoping this series finally gets a US DVD release so that we can see everything that was cut out over here to fit the hour-long format. I was so bleeped off by the loss of the encounter with Marc Bolan of T-Rex from that first season episode!

I hope it doesn't take too long for the American market to get 'Ashes To Ashes'.

And I think I would have gone with the coined word "Sipowiczean" myself. LOL!

Anonymous said...

I was so bleeped off by the loss of the encounter with Marc Bolan of T-Rex from that first season episode!

He met Bolan? What?

R.A. Porter said...

Thanks for that link tobias, but despite Matthew Graham's authorial intent, in order to make sense of Ashes to Ashes I'm going to rejigger his work in my head so Sam was *both* in a coma and back in '73. So DCI Alex Drake won't be meeting Gene Hunt just because she'll have read Sam Tyler's notes, but because she too is physically manifested in another time while in a coma.

Alright, that's enough of my Euro deconstruction of the text.

I too didn't like series two as much as the first (until the *aaaaaamazing* ending,) but I think I can put my finger on it. In series one, Sam's not always right. Sometimes, Gene's got a damn point too. There are some great moments in series one where the two of them come to the same endpoint from their very different starting places - the two-fisted punch being the most visually striking. This series, Gene is always a brute who abuses his power and Sam is the sage lawman of the future. It got old and wearying pretty fast.

It wasn't until the penultimate episode that we're even reminded that Gene and Sam have a level of trust and respect for each other, and that was a little more tell than show. I think a more even-handed approach to Gene and Sam and their approaches to policing would have gone a long way to improving series two.

But the The intimations of Oz in series one didn't do the ending justice. I guess it's true what they say: "suicide is painless".

Anonymous said...

On most procedurals, I don't care about the characters because their boring. Now, I can await DEK's version, where I won't care for that reason but also because they DON'T EXIST!

Anonymous said...

I liked "Life on Mars" more than Alan and most people here. I too have grown weary of procedurals (after years and years of being a L&O fanatic, I haven't watched one new episode of any of the franchise in the past 2 years).

But I thought LOM had a lot more to offer than a standard cop(pers) & robbers show, though the second season did have more standalone "procedural" episodes than the the first season, which had the connective plotline about Sam's bad dad.

I'm very satisfied with the ending, the jump off the roof was an amazing moment. Given that it ended with him hearing voices on the car radio, who is to say what really happened? All of that part in the present day could have been part of the coma, he may never have actually returned to consciousness at all. That's my interpertation, that that was his sub-conscious rejecting the opportunity to come out of the coma. But it's open to different readings, which is a testament to how good the ending was.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the final few episodes. And I do think the ending was supposed to be ambiguous -- Sam's "leap into the void" at the end could have been viewed as metaphorical, rather than a straight-ahead suicide.

But to me, the idea that Sam was "more alive" in the past didn't hold water, because the entire show was longer on the action than it was on the details. (I imagine that David E. Kelley's American version, if it does ever happen, will feature much more complex, "Hill Street Blues"-style police plots.) And it seems as if anyone would have emotional issues after awakening from a long coma -- where were his doctors and shrinks in all this?

As to whether the events in the past were "real" or just a figment of Sam's coma-based imagination: Why didn't present Sam do a little research and find out? He certainly had the resources to determine whether some of the things he experienced actually happened. Or he could have just asked his now ex-girlfriend's mother if she remembers spending the night in the flat of a strange cop who looked like him.

The question of how real the past events were is even more important because it would inform his moral choice at the end: If it was all in his imagination, then he didn't leave his fellow cops to die. If it was real, then he has to do whatever he can to get back -- not just for his own happiness, but so he can save them.

Anonymous said...

The kidnapped girlfriend arc in s1 was kinda disappointing: Undramatic a hell, wrapped storyline...Too bad.

Anonymous said...

The point of that ending got to me...because he was more at home with the world inside his head than real people. He was emotionally disconnected in his real life, but in his coma life, he had friends and people who had life to them. Why wouldn't he try to get back?

Kristin, that's why that ending had me a weepy mess. For me, the point was that after living in his imaginary world where he was the special guy who could make everything better, he couldn't bear to be in the real world where he was fairly ordinary. That, to me, was so incredibly tragic.

As for the procedural, it worked for me. I always liked the conflict between modern Sam and old school Gene and what I liked about S2 was watching Sam have an effect on his world -- Annie became a respected detective, Chris began to learn a bit about modern policing, even Gene showed Sam some respect -- which made the series' ending make so much sense.

Karen said...

Interesting that some see the finale as shocking or twisty: I thought it ended the most logical way possible. From the moment Sam set foot on the roof, I was expecting him to jump--he looked so lost back in 2007. As to whether that means 1973 was "heaven"--well, that seems a rather pedestrian and conventional construction to put on it. I've heard that there may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy! I prefer to think that Sam had become unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim (though not exactly the same), and that he was given the blessed choice of going where he preferred to go.

I agree, though, that never wrapping up the story of the kidnapped modern-day girlfriend was a shoddy deal. I kind of wanted the show to deal with why Sam preferred to be with Annie.

I completely agree with Tobias about the ending having a complexity like that of The Prisoner (an ending I've never understood since I first saw it almost 40 years ago). I really liked it. It felt inevitable, but not stale or contrived.

barefootjim said...

I'm still pissed the BBC America essentially buried this amazing show -- a mid-December debut? New episodes on both Christmas and New Years? C'mon!!!

I mean, Dr. Who deserves every single bit of love it gets, but for reasons that escape me, BBCA is all about pushing Torchwood and Robin Hood (which actually got billboard space in Los Angeles last summer), but not this show. Bah!

(I was also disappointed that none of the usual recap suspects -- Alan, TWOP, AV Club, House Next Door -- covered it, as I would have loved to get some community perspective as this second series unfolded. At least Alan has admitted he just got bored, which wasn't my reaction, but he isn't -- yet -- required to write about all of the shows I like, though these days when he doesn't it just seems weird.)

Which is why I'm also a bit skeptical that there will ever be U.S. DVDs, especially with all of the potential music clearance issues.

I would love to be proved wrong, however.

Also, count me in with those who like to believe that Sam was both in a coma and in 1973.

It's more fun that way.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I loved both season one and season two. I'd buy the DVD's in a heartbeat just to see the complete, uncut version. I also loved the ending, but now I'm going to have to go back and watch everything again. Nice touch that the little blonde girl turned off the TV at the end.