Yes, I’m Still Watching…ABC’s Life on Mars

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Yes, I’m Still Watching…Life on Mars

February 23rd, 2009

There were many shows that I caught up on over the end of last week, finding myself recovering from one major academic deadline and then not wanting to start preparing for the next one immediately. And so I sat down and caught up on numerous shows that I’ve found myself falling behind on for this, that, or some other reason.

The one I’m choosing to write about first is the one that has perhaps been off the radar for the longest period of time. I blogged my way through the premiere of Life on Mars, but since that point I have been noticeably absent. But the show after a very strong fall finale of sorts in December, Life on Mars has returned after the break to struggling ratings (nothing ever performs well after Lost) but to a bit of a creative resurgence, picking the right kinds of stories and the right balance of 1973 reality and 1973 surreality to sustain my attention.

I still have some concerns with certain elements of the show’s storytelling, but at this point they have done more than enough in terms of creating endearing, well-acted and well-rounded characters for me to be too preoccupied with such matters, and although I am still remiss in not checking out the BBC original series I am pleased at some of the broader mythology stuff that is starting to appear.

I am starting to come around to a fact that is kind of terrifying: at the end of the day, there are numerous crime procedurals on networks other than CBS that, were they on CBS, they would currently be pulling in huge numbers along the lines of The Mentalist, NCIS, Criminal Minds, etc. Life on Mars, for me, is one of those shows: it has an engaging and charming lead actor (like Simon Baker on The Mentalist!), and it has surrounded him with people with clearly defined roles (comic relief, muscle, authority, sexual tension, etc.). While one could argue that the show’s science fiction elements could put people off, they’re just a slightly more existential form of Jane’s (I’m talking Mentalist here, which I’ll probably get into more later this week) own personal trauma.

In the beginning, this all might have been problematic to the show’s success, but the show has smartly shifted from Sam trying desperately to return home to Sam trying desperately to find out why he’s here in the first place. Now that the show has given him some reasons to stay in 1973, such as a few love interests and a certain camaraderie with his fellow officers in the 125, it doesn’t feel so much like he’s just visiting: yeah, he still wants to get home eventually, but now that he’s not pining after his girlfriend or seeing Lisa Bonet on television screens, the show seems much better for it. It makes us feel less uncomfortable about being in 1973, and instead plays out like a period cop show where one of the characters shares our point of view of the situation at hand.

And there’s a lot of fun in that: last week’s episode, featuring Broadway’s Cheyenne Jackson as a rock star who swaps intellectualisms with Annie and is caught up in a disappearance, took the 70s groupie cliche and just kind of went for it. Did it hit every time? No – there are still some jokes that don’t click, and sometimes it does feel like the show is trying too hard to be tongue-in-cheek with the 70s references. But at the very least you feel like it’s not just Sam that we’re following: we’re seeing Chris emerge as someone who has his own beliefs and his own interests, and Gretchen Mol is bringing to Annie a definite sense of purpose that is bringing her character to the forefront. It hasn’t hurt, also, that Maggie Siff stopped by for an extended guest arc as Hunt’s daughter, joining Rosemarie Dewitt on the list of former Don Draper flames who are finding their way with solid supporting/guest roles in new series.

I also like what they’re doing in terms of the mythology, building it alongside personal relationships more than convenient cases that happen to send Sam into such territory. The voice on the phone in what should have been the first episode back, if they hadn’t decided to air episodes out of order for absolutely no discernable reason, indicated to Sam that there were things he was needed for, that this Operation Aries is perhaps the reason that he was brought back here. The situation with Ray and his brother (Eric Balfour joining the list of solid guest stars) was a test of sorts, and then we saw perhaps another potential agent of sorts with the Councilman in this episode, sent back from 2009 to (seemingly) bring new zoning legislation, usher in minimum wage, and usher in new progress.

What we don’t yet know is why, but this week’s episode seemed to indicate that perhaps they are necessary to change the future, or perhaps to ensure the future stays the same, or that the future happens. Having another person who is suffering from the same condition as Sam, but who got his bluebirds and was set to fly over the rainbow, gives us a sense that Sam is in fact on some sort of temporal mission, and that until it’s over he won’t be given the keys to leave, if you will. I like this because it implies that there is purpose, the chance to drop in with a reminder every now and then, but the writers have some room to stretch it out, and to keep the show running.

Of course, the ratings are suffering (Lost has never been a good lead-in to begin with, and these shows really aren’t that compatible), so there might not be a show to keep running. That being said, ABC had all three of their sophomore shows drop off their schedule, and while it might not have been picked up for a full season Life on Mars at least will get 17 episodes to prove itself. Unless one of the three 10pm shows coming in the Spring (Including Cupid and Castle, plus The Unusuals which is actually quite similar to Life on Mars) does exceedingly well, the pedigree and creative state of Life on Mars might be enough to get it another season.

But I don’t know what kind of long-term prospects there might be for the show: if it’s a crime show and not on CBS these days, you’ve gotta hope you’re leading out of American Idol or that you’ve been around long enough to have some leverage. It’s a bumpy ride, time travel or no time travel.

Cultural Observations

  • I enjoy Michael Imperioli getting more work as Ray – he’s really gotten into this role, and both with his brother and in this week’s episode with Annie he walks that line between someone whose jerkish behaviour is the result of male insecurity and, well, actually being a jerk. At times he can come across as the patronizing male stereotype, especially in the scenes with his wife, but the stuff with Annie had a bit more force because she was a bit more willing to spar with him.
  • I’m presuming they decided to switch the episode order around since the first episode back from the break, with its feud between the two precincts and its poolside brawl, not to mention its sexual tension, was a more light-hearted introduction to the show. However, considering that the show was airing after Lost, I think they could have handled a couple of decapitated bodies and a horribly burned man.
  • On that note, I’m curious if we see some of the recurring characters who populate this world again: Wallace Shawn was engaging as the Fox Mulder of the 70s, and the Werewolf of Wall Street seems like the kind of person they might run into in time. The show has done a good job of populating its New York City, and the more they use that to their advantage with recurring players the better.
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5 Comments

Filed under Life on Mars

5 responses to “Yes, I’m Still Watching…ABC’s Life on Mars

  1. Thomas

    Pleasantly surprised by this show. I loved the British version, and was expecting another awful remake. But the writers have really gone in their own direction, and so far, that’s a pretty interesting direction. Are you still planning to watch the original British version, Myles?

    • It’s on “The List,”* Thomas.

      * There is no actual list. It’s just an ever-growing series of thoughts that will occasionally wrack me with guilt for not having finished or even started various shows. They will one day overwhelm me. But no, seriously, I will get to it eventually.

      • Thomas

        Heh – I know what you mean. Plenty of stuff I also still want to watch. Luckily, Life on Mars is only 16 episodes of an hour each, so it’s relatively compact. Interested in what you think of it, if you ever do get around to watching.

  2. I haven’t watched for the past two weeks and was planning on getting caught up on Thursday. Glad to hear I have something to look forward to.

  3. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the US Life On Mars. I’m a Brit and a fan of the original and, after the awful first US pilot, feared the worst, but the move to New York really turned it around.

    I’ve also been intrigued (since I know how the UK version ended – although the sequel Ashes To Ashes suggests that we still don’t know the full story of the mythology) by the US producers’ comments that their big reveal of what’s going on will be very different from the UK version. There’s a post about this on my own blog if anyone’s interested.

    However, I fear that the low ratings mean they (the US version) won’t get to finish the story.

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