Although I review US pilots as they come out (cf ‘Screening Screeners‘, ‘More Screeners‘ and ‘US shows: what to watch and what to ignore completely‘ to see which ones now ring true), I usually reserve my final verdict on new shows until the second or third episode’s aired.
Which explains why I’m only now talking about Life on Mars, the new nostalgia cop show starring John Simm and Philip Glenister. The basic plot: a cop from 2006 gets knocked down in a car accident and wakes to find himself in 1973. Is he in a coma, mad, dead or has he genuinely travelled back in time? We don’t know and neither does he, but until he finds a way back, he has to make the best of it. The trouble is, the police in 1973 appear to think they’re in either an episode of The Sweeney or the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad.
It’s actually pretty enjoyable, despite the fact the show’s from Kudos, who do the glossy but banal Spooks and Hustle. As with all shows where the heroes visit the past, you can get a kick out of the natives’ ‘ignorance’. Most of the show revolves around the gulf between Simm’s expectations of how policing should be done and what his 1970s’ counterparts actually do. Fingerprints take two weeks to be processed, interviews take place in the canteen and aren’t recorded, witness protection is for mafia grasses and Glenister keeps a pile of “bling” and acid in his filing cabinet for when he needs to plant evidence.
The biggest shock is the illiberal attitudes on display (AA Gill said it was as though the main character had woken up in a Richard Littlejohn column). The 70s isn’t that long ago. Most of us can remember the 70s: we’ve lived through it and we have a certain rosy view of the era of our early childhood. But watching Life on Mars, you realise the 70s might as well be one hundred years ago. Watching the treatment a deaf character gets in the second episode brings home to you just what isn’t acceptable these days: anyone ruing political correctness clearly doesn’t remember what things used to be like in the ‘good old days’. Similarly, you realise just how reconstructed today’s police are in comparison with the police of 1973, amazing though that may seem to some.
Of course, Life on Mars isn’t 100% realistic – nor is intended to be. There are hints throughout the show that Simm is still in his hospital after his accident, with mysterious voices talking about his condition and the sun always shining outside, no matter what time of day it is. Any historical slips such as policewomen being called WPC instead of PWs can then be put down to his faulty recall of the era, as can the occasional overly comedic moment such as a mass chase in swimming trunks, which even Simm’s character realises is implausible. Like Lost, though, until the ending is revealed, we won’t know how much slack to cut it on such matters.
Simm and Glenister, last seen together in the outstanding State of Play, get to ham it up a little and seem to have a great time doing it (Glenister more than Simm, who has to be constantly pained by his new colleague’s predilection for punching anyone who annoys him). There’s a rip-roaring 70s soundtrack, including, naturally enough, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’. It’s great fun to watch and while it’s not going to strain the brain too much, there are enough subtleties and unexpected twists to keep your interest piqued.