In case you’re not familiar with the sometimes brilliant if often frustrating Life on Mars, here’s a quick recap: detective inspector Sam Tyler gets hit by a car in 2007 and wakes up in 1973. He forms an uneasy partnership with Gene Hunt, a brutish fellow DI with zero regard for proper procedure. In between flirting with PC Annie Cartwright and philosophising with wise barman Wilson, Sam throws himself into his police work to avoid the burning question of what exactly has happened to him. Three possibilities: he’s either mad, in a coma or actually back in time. And that’s all! So before this starts sounding too much like an advertisement, let me get into some actual analysis.
Life on Mars is, I feel, a hugely overrated show, both in the UK and the US. It leans far too heavily on its procedural aspect, every episode not just based around a case but dominated by it. The opener of season two, for instance, followed Sam struggling to jail someone he knew would become a violent criminal in the future. Interesting idea, but not interesting enough to sustain a viewer’s attention for an hour (that’s a full hour, without ads). Every episode had Sam hearing messages from the modern day, often through TVs or radios, a gimmick that got old pretty quick. Without anything else going on, Life on Mars never became more than a crime drama with a twist. A twist which, while it did help the show stand out from the pack at first, could not hold up whole stories on its own.
The reason Life on Mars has never been heavily criticised for these problems has been its characters. Like many leads, Sam Tyler sometimes drifted into ‘annoying do-gooder’ territory, but the magnificent John Simm kept him likeable through it all. Without Philip Glenister, however, Life on Mars would be nothing. His hilarious Gene Hunt – sexist, racist, bigoted and lovable – made the perfect antidote to Sam’s level-headedness, forging one of TV’s greatest odd-couples in years. Watching Simm and Glenister bounce off each other was a pleasure that made the show worthwhile. The downside will be familiar to experienced TV watchers – whenever Sam and Gene weren’t on screen together, the proceedings tended to fizzle. The rest of the ensemble never made it past caricature status (the love interest, the idiot, and…the other idiot).
For all these reasons, I only viewed Life on Mars’ second season intermittently upon its initial airing (in the UK, where I live). I did, however, make sure to watch the last couple episodes, as whatever problems the show might have had, I was still intrigued to see how it would end. Which brings me to the finale (which aired Tuesday night on BBC America), what I really want to talk about. Written by series co-creator Matthew Graham, it is an amazing hour of television that makes up for the mediocrity that has come before. There’s no big twist in the reveal of how Sam ended up in 1970 – in fact, Graham has admitted that he had never really intended it as much of a mystery, an interesting example of the showrunner being on a completely different page than the viewer. The finale offers a simple, concrete explanation of Sam’s situation: he’s in a coma, the present day is the real world and 1973 is a kind of purgatory. While not a shocker, this conclusion allows the show a remarkable emotional closure.
Graham’s script is a tense, gripping hour of television, one of the best constructed stories I’ve ever seen on television. Its brilliance comes from how it works on so many different levels. You could argue that Sam is simply insane as a result of his accident, unable to remove himself from the fantasy world he created inside his head. On the other hand, maybe Sam is the sane one, and it’s everyone else who’s leaving in a dream world. It could be seen as a condemnation of our shades-of-grey 21st century society, with Graham arguing that the 1970s were simpler and therefore happier times. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for how happiness can be found in the most unlikely of places, and ultimately home is where the heart is.
Two sequences in particular sent my heart racing. There’s Sam’s confrontation with Frank Morgan as he realises that Morgan’s promise to send Sam home referred to Hyde rather than 2007. Morgan offers an altogether new explanation of Sam’s situation, a full-on red herring on Graham’s part, suggesting that Sam had imagined 2007 rather than 1973. Simm is at his best during these scenes – his underplayed break-down when Sam thinks he will be stuck in ’73 forever is pitiable while never pathetic. The second sequence was of course the final ten minutes, starting with Sam’s return to 2007 and culminating with him, Hunt and whole team driving off into the sunset. Considering Mars was frequently not even entertaining, let alone emotionally engaging, it’s surprisingly moving stuff. The final interchange, a typical argument between Tyler and Hunt, highlights the two leads’ brilliant back-and-forth chemistry which so many shows strive for but few can organically sell. Sam utters the final line – suitably, “In your dreams” – before Test Card Girl, a sort of spiritual guide for the viewer, appears and reaches out towards the viewer as if to turn off a TV. The screen goes black. Journey’s over. Nothing like a perfect ending to make a bumpy journey suddenly seem so worth taking.