Zack is vacationing this week, so I’m repaying the many TV-covering favors he’s done for me by taking over for him with the return of Life On Mars. Though I should open with a confession: I haven’t seen an episode of the U.S. version since the second one. I enjoyed the pilot, but thought the second episode was so tonally off from the original series that I bailed. (Too much other TV to watch.) Before taking on this assignment, I intended to watch the much-acclaimed “The Man Who Sold The World” on the ABC site, but I got tied up writing my lengthy Lost post. So aside from my experience with the full run of the UK Life On Mars, I’m coming to “Take A Look At The Lawmen” fairly cold.
And here’s my immediate impression: I don’t get it.
The original Life On Mars often split the difference between straight-up police procedural and freaky time travel show (with complicated metaphysical implications rumbling underneath), but tonight’s episode was pretty much all procedural. The detectives are called in to investigate a bank robbery and murder, reportedly perpetrated by a Russian, and possibly at the behest of swaggering mob boss Basily Lukin. While on the case, Sam Tyler discovers that his boss Gene Hunt has a rival on the force, a cop named Nunzio (played by Vincent Curatola, the dude who played the head of the New York family on The Sopranos), who he used to fight with over a girl when they were kids. For a time, Hunt and Nunzio’s bickering threatens to screw up the case, but they pull together at the end and bring the bad guys down, before bonding over beers.
I understand that part of the Life On Mars concept is to set a cop show in the early ‘70s that has a ‘70s cop show feel, but all the joviality and pranks between Hunt and Nunzio really feels more like late ‘70s or early ‘80s TV than 1974. It’s more CHiPs than Police Woman. As for the subplot that has Sam hooking up with a sexy SPCC worker who turns out to be Gene’s daughter—well, again, it felt like standard lighthearted workplace drama/comedy kind of material, not something you'd see in a series with a concept as out-there as this one's.
The nods to Life On Mars’ fantastical side in “Take A Look At The Lawmen” were largely limited to Sam hallucinating little nanobot bugs crawling out from under people’s skin and flying around, along with a brief moment in his interview with the reluctant Russian bank robber in which the poor man refers to his research designed to “confirm or deny the existence of a human soul.” The episode also brought up several times the idea that in America, “You can be anything.” How does this connect to Sam and his time-tripping ways? Perhaps, as with the UK series, the suggestion is that Sam could make a life for himself in this new world he’s stranded in—like an immigrant learning the language and the customs and eventually thriving. At the least, it means he should feel free to shag away with Gene’s little Gene-ette, Maria.
But in the end we’re talking about less than five minutes of a 40-minutes episode devoted to the series’ core themes. The rest was doggedly, naggingly average.
So anyway, thanks to Zack for giving me an excuse to check back in with Life On Mars, and to see where it’s at these days. Based on tonight, I don’t think I’ll be returning to the show, unless Zack needs me again. But I would like to ask you Life On Mars fans: Was this episode unusually off, or am I just missing something?
-As near as I can tell, this is actually the eleventh of the twelve Life On Mars episodes ABC has ordered. Why did they jump ahead? I’m assuming they wanted the strongest possible episode to lead-out from Lost. Still, given that there’s a serialized element to Life On Mars, that's kind of a weird move. (Also, I’m not sure this really was the best way to lead out from Lost, since the episode was practically devoid of the kind of mythology and weirdness that Lost fans might dig.)
-One of the other reasons that I checked out early on Life On Mars is that I found Harvey Keitel’s performance in the first two episodes really strange—halfway between puckish and completely out-of-it. Tonight he was a little better than I recall him being at the start of the series, but while I chuckled at him saying, “I haven’t smacked around a Commie since the McCarthy Era,” I cringed at his “Yabba Dabba Doo.”
-I do still really love the music on this show, though. Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey In The Jar?” That’s just awesome.