TV on DVD: “Life on Mars: The Complete Series”

Written by Television, TV on DVD

lomuscoverLife on Mars: The Complete Series (2009, ABC Studios/Buena Vista)
purchase from Amazon: DVD

Being a fan of the original BBC version of Life on Mars, I was leery of the ABC version when it premiered last fall. I loved the original show, an intriguing amalgam of science fiction and ’70s era cop shows. With great stories and a fantastic cast, I was worried — very, very worried — that once ABC got their hands on it they would fuck it up.

However, show producers Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg were big fans of the BBC show, as well, and set out to maintain the mystery, tragedy and fun of the original. Looking back on the entire series contained in this box set, I’m happy to say that they met the challenge.

Jason O’Mara stars as Sam Tyler, a New York detective in 2008 who gets hit by a car and knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Tyler is blown away to discover that he’s awoken in the year 1973. Has he been shot back in time? Is he in a coma? The only way he can get to the bottom of his predicament is to explore his surroundings and look for clues on how he can get back to 2008, where he belongs. Tyler finds his way to the 125 precinct and is immediately met by Lt. Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel), a ball-busting, whiskey-drinking commander who plays by his own rules. Tyler is amazed that he’s been expected as the new detective arriving to work in the 125. His presence causes a stir in the squad room. Detective Ray Carling (a long-haired, mustached Michael Imperioli) hates him; junior detective Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy) looks up to him, and uniformed policewoman Annie Norris (Gretchen Moll) is attracted to him. Tyler could give a shit about any of their feelings because he just wants to get home. Yet as the series progresses and he gets to know these people, figments of his mind or not, he begins to care for them.

Tyler gradually realizes that he has to play the part of a ’70s cop or he might end up locked away in a padded room and never get home. He reluctantly becomes an active member of the 125 and watches in shock as decades old prejudices and practices are used to solve crimes and put the bad guys behind bars. Hunt is not above slugging a witness to get to what he wants, and most of the detectives regularly discriminate against Annie and subject her to the nickname “no nuts.” At the same time, Tyler receives cryptic messages from his television and over the phone, leading him toward his fate. Tyler must also confront his past by running into his mother, his deadbeat father, and even himself as a child.

Everything about the ABC version of Life on Mars stays true to the BBC series. From the name of Sam’s hometown to several of the plots throughout these 17 episodes, from the use of ’70s-style funky TV music, to the consistent use of a cinematic style reminiscent of a bygone era, this Life on Mars succeeds as well as the BBC version. Initially I had reservations about O’Mara taking over as Tyler as I found John Simms (the British Tyler) so pitch perfect, I wasn’t sure O’Mara could replace him. However, as I progressed through the entire series, I started to like O’Mara almost as much as his British counterpart. Of the supporting cast, Imperioli was the most impressive as Ray. He made the character into an enjoyable asshole; that’s tough to do. Mol is lovely as Annie, with a calming quality about her that made me pay attention whenever she was on the screen. My biggest disappointment with this Life on Mars was Keitel. Hard to believe, but the bad lieutenant himself didn’t have the same presence as the brilliant Philip Glenister, who played Hunt overseas. I wonder how people who never saw the BBC version felt about his performance. But it wasn’t just his acting; O’Mara is just a bigger person physically. I never felt Tyler was intimidated by Hunt the way he could — or should — have been.

Is it fair to compare the two shows? Probably not. But it’s impossible not to do. I know that fans of the original The Office couldn’t help but compare the two. Luckily that show was allowed to grow and become something different than the original altogether. Life on Mars didn’t have that same fate; it was cancelled in the spring. All that we have are these 17 episodes. Life on Mars is solid entertainment, save for the most ridiculous ending to a television series I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to give it away here because I hope there are some of you who will check this show out. But I practically laughed when the big “reveal” occurred. According to executive producer Appelbaum, “It’s one of those endings (he believes) will make you watch the series again.” The only thing I wanted to watch again after watching Appelbaum’s ending was the BBC ending all over again.

Besides the episodes, Life on Mars: The Complete Series has three decent behind the scenes featurettes, the best of which is “To Mars and Back,” which looks at the genesis of the show and contains insightful interviews with the cast and crew. There are also audio commentaries, deleted scenes and bloopers.

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