So far, the aesthetic of Life On Mars has been one of the best things about the show, from the score to the lighting to the set designs. It's all nearly realistic without ever being entirely solid–every so often, the line blurs just enough, and you wonder if maybe this is a dream after all.
That makes it trickier to judge individual episodes, because a number of flaws can be explained away if it turns out the whole thing is just Sam's hallucination. "My Maharishi Is Bigger Than Your Maharishi" was decent. The procedural elements, while not revolutionary, were handled more convincingly than last week, and the usual outré twists were as engaging as always. The speechifying, though, was ridiculous. As Sam dealt with bigotry, Vietnam vets, and the eternal war between hippies and The Man, "Maharsihi" often played like particularly tortured afterschool special.
But–and here's where the trickiness comes in–how much of that is intentional? If Life On Mars wants to replicate the sound and look of a seventies cop drama, heavy-handed moralizing comes with the territory. As does a mystery that gets tied up in a neat package at the fifty minute mark. I'm willing to have a certain amount of faith here, but I need some assurance that what we're seeing is all part of the act, and not just the ham fisted mark of hackdom.
The body of a murdered Vietnam veteran is found in the park, and the 125 is on notice. Hunt has a thing about dead vets, and there's a lot of talk of him driving everyone into the ground if they don't find the killer fast. It's really just talk; Hunt gives a couple of lectures and beats on some suspects, but there's no real sense of him on the warpath. We've yet to see any consequences from his supposed fury–apart from some scuffling with Sam, he seems like you average, probably-should've-retired-years-ago boss.
Initially, everybody but Sam blames the hippies. We get a lot of dancing moon people in "Maharashi," and it's presented as such a blatant stereotype that it has to be purposeful. They're frolicking in the park, they're tripping and grooving on life, and they're listening to guru give them the good word on the nature of the universe. Ray blasts them as anti-American and is convinced they're involved in the death. Sam tries to defend their right to protest, and we get another in a long series of talking-heads style conversations. (As in "Characters spouting personality-less rhetoric," not "Once In A Lifetime.")
Sam catches a break when he and Annie interview one of the corpse's former acquaintances; Annie suspects he's gay, which leads Sam to decide that the corpse, Robert Reeves, was gay too. At least while he was alive. Either Sam's still working off the head-blow he got when the car hit him, or else he just doesn't care, because he decides it would be a good idea to break their deduction to Hunt and the others. It goes about as well as you'd expect.
A trip to a gay bar that Robert used to visit (his son had one of their matchbooks) tips Sam off on a series of attacks targeting local homosexuals in the park. Sam and Annie rope Chris in as bait for a sting operation that nets three asshole punks. The punks didn't kill Reeves, but one of them saw who did; John Fisher, a member of Robert's platoon overseas. They'd had a relationship during the war, and back home, Robert wanted to continue the relationship. John didn't, and things got nasty.
As a "message" ep, "Maharishi" is about as subtle as a groin punch. Although it's hard to say exactly what the message is–are we supposed to marvel at how much times have changed in thirty years? Because this 1973 is way too unreal for that sort of thing. Sam even gives a speech connecting prejudice to 9/11, and it's hard to know who's kidding who. It's possible to mitigate some of the tone-deafness by labeling it as parody, or homage, like Stan's speeches at the end of all those South Park episodes, but if that's the case, it needs to go further. Right now, it's a little too close to actual bad writing.
There was a moment near the end, when Sam and Annie go to tell Robert's widow why he was killed, when I thought that something in the cop-drama section of the show might surprise me. Sam says he wants to tell the whole truth, because the widow needs to hear it; but when he's confronted by her and her son, he caves, couching the whole thing in a pleasant-but-hollow speech about "bravery" and "being yourself." He should've told them Robert was gay. It might not have been what they wanted to hear, but it would've been the sort of break from convention that the series could really use. Sam is settling too easily into the role of mildly befuddled time traveler. I want to see him taking more chances.
I liked the episode, though. There were some nice character moments ("The crackers are made out of people!" was a good slow burn; you knew it was coming the moment Ray said Soylent Green), but more importantly, the spooky stuff continues to develop. We get some flashbacks of the park again, and we learn that Sam's dad disappeared when he was a kid; just walked off into the woods and never came back. The neighborhood that Robert's wife and son live in reminds Sam that his four-year old self is in the city somewhere, and he starts getting glimpses of a little boy running around in the background. The conversation with the Maharishi was great ("I think everything is an illusion."), as is the increasingly fractured nature of Sam's reality–he can't really believe in 1973, but it's getting harder and harder to believe in 2008. Without anyway to know what's real and what isn't, what is there to hold onto? Sam tells Windy he's getting the hang of things, but in the final scene, everything falls apart; he sees his younger self, going to a Knicks game with his dad. That can't be a comforting moment.
For right now, aces on the big story, but the jury's out on the weekly procedurals. Next week looks to be heavy on the mythology elements, so fingers crossed.
--Sam breaks into an empty house, knows to look behind a baseboard, and finds a box with a picture of a black family. I wonder where Maya grew up
--Windy's perkiness has passed over into eerie, potential phantom mode; Sam's the only person we've seen interacting with her, so I'm not entirely convinced she's real even with the 1973 context. Very cool.
--Anybody else groan at the "gays in the military" line?