Thursday, November 10, 2011

TV Thursdays: Life on Mars

As always, SPOILERS follow.

It’s taken as read that endings are crucial to fiction, but is it possible that, in the medium of television, they might not be as important? I can see arguments both ways. I believe the ending of “Lost” is a genuine disappointment, one that completely fumbles the balls the series had been keeping in the air up until that point, but large swathes of the show are still well worth watching, and aren’t significantly diminished by where the story ended up. I think the ending of Battlestar Galactica is good—not great, but good—but it doesn’t change the fact that the show went off the rails in its final season. The finales of Star Trek: The Next Generation (good), The X-Files (bad), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (mediocre) don’t change the respective quality of the series as a whole.

But then, I have to admit, one of the reasons I can blow off The X-Files and Lost in particular is that I became convinced pretty early on that they weren’t going to stick the landing, that the “big reveals” they’d been implicitly promising throughout the show weren’t going to come together dramatically, even if we technically learned everything by the end. X-Files tripped over its own continuity and narrative coherence one too many times by around the third season to convince me the writers had a plan, and if there’s a more obvious example of TV writers stringing their audience along ad nauseum than Lost’s first two seasons, I can’t think of it. Again, I like both these shows, but I decided not to put my trust in a logical meta-narrative and just enjoy it on an episode-by-episode basis early on.

Conversely, when Life on Mars set up an intriguing meta-story in its pilot, I figured it was going somewhere cool. Not an unreasonable assumption—the show was smartly written from the start, it was well-reviewed, and given that it was British, there was a comparatively short run of episodes, so it wasn’t unreasonable to think that they might have told a tight, 16-part story with a satisfying payoff. So the fact that said payoff completely failed to arrive may have coloured my outlook on the whole series more harshly than it otherwise might have.

The show concerns Sam Tyler (John Simm), a cop in Machester, 2006, who’s in pursuit of a serial killer. When his girlfriend and partner (which…I don’t know much about how the police operate in Britain, but that seems like a bit of a stretch, that you would be allowed to have an open romantic relationship with your partner) pursues a hunch and apparently gets snagged by the killer, Sam races frantically to catch her and is hit by a car. To his befuddlement, he wakes up in what seems to be Manchester, 1973, an exaggerated Starsky-and-Hutch-style TV cop show reality where everyone is a slightly (or heavily) corrupt chain-smoker and heavy drinker, women are only there to be harassed, and police methods involve slapping suspects around until they talk. This brave new world is embodied by Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, played by the magnetic Philip Glenister as a perpetually pissed-off man’s man’s man who takes a blunt-force approach to police work. While questioning the reality around him, Sam also finds himself bringing his modern, logical, and liberal sensibilities to bear on reforming the system, confiding in WPC Annie Cartwright about his former life and providing the voice of conscience for Hunt and his fellow officers.

As with Mad Men, the show focuses on the culture clash between the past and present, more literally in this case, with episodes about the racist and sexist atmosphere of the police station and England in general, the more sexually freewheeling era (masking a heavy level of male privilege), and the corrupt and slapdash nature of police work, compared with Sam’s more meticulous, logical, and by-the-book methods. 1973 tends to come off rather badly in these comparisons, though there is one heartfelt episode decrying the state of soccer/football, and how it’s become a haven for thuggery and pointless tribalism when it’s supposed to just be a fun game.

The real “hook” of the show, though, is discovering exactly what’s going on with Sam and his altered reality. The show suggests very strongly that Sam’s in a coma and imagining everything—he occasionally hears voices from the present on the radio and television discussing his medical condition, and there’s also a series of dreams and hallucinations, including a creepy little girl who occasionally crawls out of his TV set to further muddy the water—but early on Annie points out that the world he’s inhabiting seems far too tactile and detailed to be a hallucination. This sets up just enough doubt that I spent the series expecting Sam’s coma to be an elaborate fakeout…leading to some serious disappointment when the show does, indeed, seem to confirm that Sam was in a coma the entire time and that 1973 was all a hallucination.

This isn’t the only way in which the show seemed like it was leading me on, only to drop the ball at the end. Remember the serial killer business I mentioned above? While the pilot episode focuses on Sam trying to catch, apparently, the same killer back in the 70s, the actual killer—you know, the one who abducted his girlfriend, who he was racing to catch, sending him back in time in the first place?—is apparently apprehended and his girlfriend saved offscreen, while Sam’s in his coma. While I expected this to simply be a temporary resolution that would lead to a more elaborate storyline down the road, it turns out that, no, that’s all the writers cared to do with the concept; the serial killer stuff is completely abandoned after the first episode, lending everything an aura of perfunctoriness. Likewise, the girlfriend that he was so desperate to save is basically abandoned in the second series—while it’s understandable on her part (Sam’s been in a coma for something like a year at this point, and she feels the need to move on with her life), it undermines the earlier relationship more than a little.

Individually, these kinds of issues are nitpicks, but the show is built, at least at first, around Sam’s struggle to escape the world of 1973 and get home, yet the show slowly removes all of Sam’s reasons to want to do so. Thematically, this makes sense; the show ends (somewhat predictably) with Sam abandoning his grey and dreary world of 2006 by jumping off a building and returning to 1973 to save his friends in the middle of a shootout, which wouldn’t make sense unless 1973 had become his real home. But dramatically speaking, undermining the things that drove the plot forward in the early going makes the show more than a little disappointing, in much the same way that Lost’s half-assed focus on weird metaphysics while basically ignoring or only halfheartedly tying up the central mysteries that grabbed us in the first place felt like a copout on the writer’s part. I’m not adverse to a show attempting this kind of sleight of hand, but not at the expense of the drama, and the ending’s ambiguity, again like Lost’s, feels more like the show simply couldn’t commit.

Of course, all the above comes with a caveat: I haven’t watched the “sequel show”, Ashes to Ashes, which I’m told does develop the time travel/coma/afterlife mystery somewhat further (though whether it resolves things in any satisfactory fashion, I couldn’t tell you). I guess this is the problem with British TV: I expect it to be self-contained in a way that North American TV isn’t. Maybe that’s not fair of me? I suppose I’ll have to come back and do a follow-up review if I ever get around to watching Ashes to Ashes…though I have to admit the ending of this show didn’t really compel me to do so. I'm being kind of harsh here, as this can be a very entertaining series on an episode-by-episode basis, but I think it's unfair of this show to dangle an interesting long-form plot and then yank it away by the end.

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