Friday, June 6, 2008

LIFE ON MARS: Currently, My Favorite Thing.

My friend and former roomate Kiza (aka Andrew) burned the first and second series of LIFE ON MARS, a BBC produced cop show starring the fantastic John Simms, for me, and I'm currently in fucking LOVE with it.

LIFE ON MARS is about a 2006 Police Officer named Sam Tyler, a serious and brilliant DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) in Manchester, who is hit by a car after finding out his ex-girlfriend and partner may have been murdered by a suspect he failed to keep in custody due to a lack of evidence. When he wakes up, he finds himself in the same place but 33 years in the past, in 1973. Disoriented, he finds identification and transfer papers in his car confirming his existence in 1973 as Sam Tyler, a new DI (Detective Inspector) having just transfered to Manchester from Hyde, and is immediately put onto his first case, which bears an eerie resemblance to the case he was investigating 33 years in the future, but is having trouble concentrating due to disembodied voices, mysterious phonecalls, and BBC puppets talking to him and informing him that he's simply in a coma and everything that's happening is not real. So, with a young girls life on the line, as well as his ex-girlfriends in the future, he must solve a crime in the past. Is he in a coma, a time traveler, or just mad?

LIFE ON MARS is, to me, just more proof that the British just make better TV than we do in NORTH AMERICA. The show is original, smart, immersive, and incredibly well produced... really, it's even just a pleasure to LOOK at it, it's so well directed and filmed.

I think the thing I like about the show is that it's not limited to just one genre, like so many things are these days. It's a procedural crime drama/action/sci-fi, so you can never really get bored of it, because you never have any idea what will come next. The immersive part is in the way the show strings you along with the B story of just what is happening to Sam; you're never given any sort of definitive confirmation as to what his status is (comatose/time traveler/mad), so you're always trying to figure it out with the clues you're given, which come in drips and drabs.

Episodes of LIFE ON MARS range from the more standard STARSKY AND HUTCH style action/cop show, to the more abstract and sci-fi oriented episodes where his actions in the past affect the future (such as one where he's beset upon by a nemesis from the future, in the past), or episodes where Sam is affected by people in the future messing with him in his coma (one of my favorite episodes raises the stakes by putting a ticking clock on Sam's hostage negotiation, with the threat of being taken off life support in the future), meeting people that he has a personal connection to in the future (his mom, his father, his aunt, his girlfriends mother, HIMSELF).

There are a number of other aspects to the show that fascinate me as well, such as how Sam's being a present day police officer is both an advantage and handicap. On the one hand, he's able apply future knowledge and practices such as profiling, forensics, hostage negotiation, etc, but has to deal with hard headed and stubborn 1970's style by the balls tough guy cops, that just have no patience for proper procedure. Sam is a straight shotting, by the book, Police Officer in a station filled with shoot first, ask questions later, 1970's cops. I also appreciate how the show contrasts the two time periods and doesn't shy away from serious contemporary issues, like sexism, racism, abuse... societies ills that persist throughout time.

Another aspect of LIFE ON MARS that really impresses me is how they use music, both the score and the soundtrack... especially in the scene featured in the above Youtube clip, which is what sold me completely on the show; the transition of Sam from present to past set to David Bowie's LIFE ON MARS, an audio pun that I'm quite sure was intended. The songs are all well chosen, of the times, and full of deeper meaning.

The cast is amazing. John Simms especially, but everyone in this ensemble is incredibly impressive, particularly Philip Glenister, who plays the show secondary lead, DCI Gene Hunt, who serves as foil, nemesis, and comic relief... he's the polar opposite of Sam Tyler, a gruff, rough, abrasive, sexist, racist, by the balls bastard with a drinking problem, who may or may not be entirely crooked, he believes in justice, but is so jaded he doesn't bother letting things like "evidence" or sometimes even "innocence", get in his way... he just smashes down doors and arrests whoever is standing closest to the problem. Like most of the characters in the show, he also seems to represent some part of Sam's personality. I think he's something like sames Ego, the way he wishes he could be, combined with how he viewed things when he was a child in 1973; Gene Hunt represents what the 4 year old Sam thought a cop would be, which also explains why DCI Hunt also has childlike qualities, such as never wanting to admit he's wrong, constant arguing, and acting contrary to anything Sam says just to spite him.

LIFE ON MARS is just a brilliant, layered, and multifaceted viewing experience which combines everything I loved about 70's/80's action oriented police dramas with modern procedural police dramas, wrapped in a layer of science fiction to keep things from ever getting pedestrian or boring... you literally never know what will happen or who the culprit is until the final seconds of the show; there are red herrings, bluffs, and double blinds every step of the way, even as the stakes are raised by the actions of those in the future affecting those in the past, with an even greater mystery surrounding it all: is Sam Tyler in a coma, a time traveler, or just mad?

Watch it.

On a related note... there is a fucking HORRIBLE looking Americanized remake of LIFE ON MARS by ABC that you should TOTALLY avoid watching... I cannot stress enough how fucking sheite this looks. It's fucking abominable. When will people learn that you can't just take something that's good, copy it line for line with shittier actors (COLM MEANEY!?! COME ON! Are you fucking kidding me!?!) and a shittier director who no passion for the project or any sort of concept of how to make it work, and expect it to be good. This show DESERVES to bomb huge, as I totally expect it will.

On a much brighter note... LIFE ON MARS has a second life in the form of ASHES TO ASHES, a sort of sequel which follows basically the same premise with the same characters, but in 1981, with a different lead, this time a female... it looks pretty good, even if it is sort of just rehashing what's already been done... I'll watch at least a few episodes to see if it's got juice. I sort of like how they use music to connect the show shows by having this show also named after a David Bowie song, and even featuring the same creepy clown from the ASHES TO ASHES video as a character.

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