BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Sam Tyler is a detective in the modern day Manchester police department. Sam’s girlfriend is kidnapped by a serial killer he is hunting and, while trying to find her, Sam is struck by a car. Upon waking, he discovers he is in Manchester, 1973. Sam tries to discover whether he has actually traveled back in time, is in a coma imagining 1973, or if he has imagined 2006 and is actually crazy.
PROS: Very good characters, lots of humor, intriguing premise, being on the BBC allows for more graphic language (you know, for verisimilitude).
CONS: Episodes feel uneven in tone and content, characters don’t really change too much.
BOTTOM LINE: A very interesting cop drama with strong characters and mixing in hints of time travel. If you get BBC and you want a good, but different, cop show, check out Life On Mars.
Upon waking up after his ‘accident’ Sam discovers that he appears to be in the 1973 version of Manchester, England. He also discovers that he has apparently requested a transfer to the Manchester police department. Sam bides his time working on cases while trying to figure out what happened to himself and how he can get back home. Life On Mars is basically a fish out of water tale, with an ambiguous time travel twist. And it is a surprisingly good drama which could have easily descended into campy comedy but doesn’t. Instead, it reaches for, and usually succeeds, at being a compelling human drama.
The strength of the series lies chiefly in its strong characters and their interactions. Sam Tyler, played by John Simm, does a great job of portraying someone who has no idea whether his mind is unravelling while he tried to come to grips with his new surroundings. Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) is a hard-nosed, street-wise cop who basically does things his own way, regardless of the rules. Being 1973, that sort of thing was much more common. This, of course, causes a lot of friction between Tyler and Hunt as Sam tries to instil in his new partners some sort of decency and respect for regulations. Gene Hunt is a very strong character who doesn’t take any crap from anyone. He and Sam are constantly at each others throats, but they also have a strong respect for each other, once Sam has proven himself to the department. The other characters are basically there to round out the stable of detectives, except for Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Annie is a member of the Police Women’s Department, but has a degree in psychology. She is the only one Sam feels comfortable enough with to discuss his situation. Sam also demonstrates how women can be good police officers too by having Annie help out on several cases. All in all, you end up caring for the characters, especially after you learn more about their backstories.
The writers do a great job of handling Sam. His confusion over where he is is very evident in the way he hears things that might be from an ICU ward of a hospital. At night, the characters on the TV will speak as if they are doctors attending to Sam, trying to get a response from him. He’ll also hear voices over the radio or receive odd phone calls from people he knows imploring him to wake up. It’s all very surreal and really distresses Sam to no end. In fact, the last episode of the series has Sam doing what he thinks he should because it will result in his waking up. The viewers get a strong feeling that Sam is actually in a coma, but there is no resolution to that question, as there is a second season on the way. This whole setup could have become unintentionally funny, but John Simm does a great job of portraying a stricken and confused Sam Tyler.
Because Life On Mars was first aired on the BBC Channel 1, American viewers will notice several things right off. First, there is a lot of humor, British humor of course, throughout the show. However, the writers never let it descend to the level of camp, and instead, the humor is used to defuse difficult or ugly situations. Second, the language used is more explicit than what is typical on American broadcast TV and is akin to what you might find in an HBO or Showtime series. These two items lend quite a bit realism to the show and help ground it in 1973. The last thing is that the British are, apparently, much more tolerant of hairy backsides than American viewers. Yes, full, male, rear nudity is shown, and I’m not talking Dennis Franz in the shower. It’s a full moon, literally. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often. Oh, and one other thing. Since the BBC is a state-sponsored entity (I think), there are no commercials. As a result, each episode tops out at nearly 58 minutes. I think the typical American broadcast one hour program is actually about 42 minutes in length without commercials.
But even with the extra 16 minutes, I felt that some of the episodes where a bit thin. It’s hard to explain, but I felt that some of them ended rather ubruptly, with the build up taking too long. It’s like the writers spent too much time on minutia, then realized they had to end the episode. Also, one episode in particular, ends with a major change in the criminal landscape of Manchester. However, aside from using this to set things in motion for the last episode (tangentially), the major changes and threats to the department really don’t materialize. There should have been much more. Another episode starts out like slap-stick comedy and I thought it was going to be the comedic show. It turned deadly serious quickly and ends with a major change inside the department. Disconcerting. But this change was barely reflected in the next episode, where the characters carried on as before. Oh, and one more thing I didn’t ding the series for because its made for the UK audiences. The accents. Good grief, some of the accents are very thick and combined with a tendency to mumble, I had some trouble understanding what some of the characters were saying at times. It’s bloody English for crying out loud. Enunciate! How the British ruled half the world without speaking clearly, I’ll never understand…. (For our UK readers —-> 😉 See? Smiley. I’m kidding.)
If you get BBC America, Life On Mars is broadcast on Friday nights at 10pm EST. I recommend it.