Season finale: Life on Mars (US)

Out there

Life On Mars US finale

First there was the shock and outrage. How dare the Yanks remake the beloved British crime show Life on Mars? How could it ever be as good?

Then there was the trailer for the US pilot, which provided the answer: “It couldn’t.”

Then there was the pilot, which provided another answer: “It really, really couldn’t.”

Then there was the near complete recasting, shift in location to New York and new plots, which provided yet another pilot and a new answer: “Oh, it’s not too bad, actually.”

Anywat, after jessying it about in the schedules, doing minimal marketing and forgetting to let newcomers know what had been going on in previous episodes, ABC cancelled it, but gave the new producers the chance to wrap it all up.

Given they didn’t want to use the BBC version’s ending, so fans wouldn’t be able to look it up in advance on the Internet, they decided to give us a brand new one instead. So during the final episode, which aired on Wednesday, we found out just why US Sam Tyler had travelled back in time – and this time, it wasn’t because he was in a coma.

I’ll give them something – I wasn’t expecting what they came up with. Big spoilers ahoy.

The US version of Life on Mars has trodden a slightly different path for itself from the British version. The cartoon-like antagonism of Ray was replaced by something more plausible, even if Ray became slightly sillier; Annie became a far feistier woman with an Angie Dickinson haircut; Sam was a less cerebral everyman who began to enjoy his stay in 1973 and tolerated his partners’ behaviour; and Gene Hunt became a more jovial, fatherly figure – albeit one who seemed to have trouble remembering his lines – instead of the sparring partner of the original.

While it did a poor job after the first episode or so of showing the differences between US policing 1973-style and 2008-style, other than the occasional reference and a beating, it did a very good job of depicting 1973 New York. Sepia-tinted and with a soundtrack culled from any 1973 cop show you care to mention, Life on Mars‘ New York was not a desperately nice place to live in, but a fun one all the same.

Still, blown out to a number of episodes it couldn’t quite sustain, the show did meander somewhat. It had a number of sub-plots that didn’t go anywhere (Gene Hunt’s daughter), a number of mis-directs that ultimately proved silly (the ‘Angels’ that weren’t; the phone calls from Hyde), and was a bit empty, but it had more than a few clever touches and weird fake-outs to compensate.

It wasn’t staggering but it was fun.

Life on Mars US

The ending
But the ending. What to make of that?

Talk about literal. A show called Life on Mars and the finale is all about finding life on Mars, even though it was a cop show. You could, in fact, have taken any number of people with Asperger’s Syndrome and they’d have all come up with an ending that was less literal than that one. In fact, it reminds me of the Natalie Imbruglia/Johan Lippowitz video for ‘Torn‘, with basically every line of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ converted into a plot point.

Is there life on Mars? Let’s find out, because Sam Tyler’s in a spaceship and he’s been given a dream by the ship’s computer to keep him going until he gets there. Oh look, here’s Ground Control. Where’s Major Tom? Oh, that’s Gene Hunt, because we’re going on a gene hunt. And he’s in capsule 2B and the computer’s called Windy like his neighbour.

And so on.

All the same, despite the fact if the existentialist British version had ever done that, there’d have been rioting in the streets, I kind of enjoyed it. It was so off the wall, that even though it didn’t make the slightest bit of sense – if Sam’s program really did glitch and the year is actually 2035, where did all the 1973 New York info come from for the glitch? – it was still fun and a decent conclusion to the show. Gene Hunt is really Sam’s dad; Annie is really commanding the mission – it explains everything and yet nothing. I’d have hoped for a little more, to show that Sam’s dreamworld had had some bearing on the real world, maybe through a shared dream with the others.

Maybe, given more time, they could have built up the plots, with Sam and Annie’s romance and her promotion to detective producing a slight different reveal carrying more import as a result. All the same, it wasn’t bad and it was well executed with a decent budget.

By no means a classic, Life on Mars did at least demonstrate you can do a remake, make it its own beast and still have a relatively decent show.

One question: where was Lisa Bonet? She was credited as a guest star but never showed up. Did I miss her?

  • Lisa Bonet can be heard as Sam is waking from suspended animation; something about letting him go. I think it was a quote from an earlier episode. Can’t remember when exactly, because the original version of her sub-plot (which wasn’t handled well either in the UK version in my opinion) is so strong it drowns out the remake.
    What I would like to have seen was Lisa Bonet as President Obama, and that would explain how she got wrapped into that neural stim fantasy.
    I’m thinking that the meteor crash/car crash jumped Sam’s neural net over into his Dad’s, and then it blended them together.
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gretchen Mol before, I know she played the late Betty Page but I know this for sure – she should always be blonde. That long dark hair did nothing for her, and didn’t seem apt for a space mission. (grew while she slept?)
    As it took longer and longer to finally see “Gene Hunt” again, I began to think that his stasis chamber malfunctioned, and we’d see he aged while the others stayed young. (Would’ve needed a longer space flight though.)
    I liked that Gene turned out to be Tom Tyler, and the father-son theme came full circle. But if Sam has a sister back home…. ewwwwwww!
    The original will always be in my Top Ten of shows. But I admired how these guys took those themes and characters and plots and gave them their own twist, right up to the end.
    I’ll have my own Inner Toob take on it all after midnight, EST. Rob’s got the link there to the right.

  • Since I was never likely to catch this, I was really interested in reading the review with spoilers (I’m freaky that way). So THAT’S what they did with it and THAT was what all the gossip was about since it aired. Well, it was certainly different!
    PS Gretchen Mol – 3.10 to Yuma… she’s not given much to do but she’s interesting (and blonde-ish)

  • “PS Gretchen Mol – 3.10 to Yuma… she’s not given much to do but she’s interesting (and blonde-ish)”
    Wow. I saw that, and I can’t even picture her in it now. So much for making an impression on me. But she did in this remake, and I think she should seriously think about finding another TV vehicle. I think TV plays to her strengths.

  • Nasher

    I have to say they made a watchable show.. esp by the time they got to espisode 14 (as these were the 4 later commisioned episodes in the season) the cast finally seemed at home with their characters.. Even Harvey could deliever his lines by then. As for the ending.. it was rushed they had 2 episodes notice to make an ending.. and is the nature of US shows to be open ended.. (a 1 season show is a failure.. a 8 season show is a success!) and they proved they had a plan all along at least. So of course all the plot elements seemed stunted.. they were.. you keep things open ended on US shows so they can be recalled and reused later. All in all my rating of the show went from a -1 for the pilot up to a 8 or so by episode 15 to an ending i have mixed feelings about.. but certainly not cheated. Well done on making a british show a solid american show.

  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gretchen Mol before, I know she played the late Betty Page but I know this for sure – she should always be blonde. That long dark hair did nothing for her, and didn’t seem apt for a space mission. (grew while she slept?)
    Actually I think she was much tastier as a brunette, especially in the earlier “swingers” episode.
    Overall I think this was a pretty decent series and different enough from the British version to keep me watching to the end, it’s about the same length as both original series which works for me. I will always remember it as the show that blew my mind with the most retarded ending I ever saw. I seriously thought it was a joke and it looked like half the cast thought so too.
    Let’s hope they leave Ashes to Ashes alone, I don’t think I could take a blossoming romance between a young hotty Harvey Keitel. Never mind Phil Glenister. Ick.

  • Tra ta ta

    [this is good] Recently in Russia have shown this serial. And I have fallen in love with it! I looked the British original, but on me have hooked. This history, these actors and as they have played roles. It is possible to argue long on щет endings. Personally it seems to me so “he thought that slept, and actually searched настоящаю for love which has helped it to wake up and believe in the presents”. Well and that is final more many. And yes Enni went a short blondi-hairdress more, than that which was at it in the end.
    I do not know English and consequently have taken advantage of the translator if you have not understood about what I I wish to tell, it means has badly translated =)
    In Rossie too love this serial…

  • Toon Scheur

    This must have been the worst ending in the history of sucking. And the term “genetic DNA”???? Will the moron in the room please stand up? (a stampede follows).
    This is an insult. Any show could end like that then. Dead Wood, the Tudors. Anna Boleyn wasn’t really decapitated. She is dreaming in a bad coma. And how much corny can it get huh? A 80’s style computer voice, the daughter of Obama is president (kinda like predicting that Arnold S. is the president in those 90’s movies). This is the 2000 version of bringing Bobby Ewing back to life: it was all a dream. The biggest insult in the history of TV

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  • carlos

    blablablablablabla. ths us version from far, better than the uk one

  • That would only be in some bizarre imaginary alternative reality, unfortunately

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