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From Across the Pond: "Life on Mars"

No, this isn't another declaration of my love for Veronica Mars. (Though there's nothing wrong with spreading the love of Mars.) Rather, I'm referring to the Stateside premiere of the trippy crime drama Life on Mars, which launched its first season last night on BBC America.

While it's nominally a mystery series, Life on Mars is far from being your standard crime procedural. Instead, it's a deft blend of police procedural, pitch black humor, and crime drama, with a sci-fi twist. In 2006, Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (State of Play's John Simm) is on the hunt for a man he believes is a serial killer targeting young women, keeping them alive for 24 hours, and then strangling them. Tyler thinks he's caught his man when he brings in ginger-haired Colin Raimes (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire's Sam Hazeldine), a troubled schizophrenic, but when his social worker has an airtight alibi for him, Tyler's back at square one. However, Tyler's police colleague and girlfriend Maya (The Constant Gardener's Archie Panjabi) has a hunch of her own but when she goes to investigate, she too is abducted by the killer. Tyler is distraught and drives aimlessly, listening to David Bowie's 1973 classic "Life on Mars." When he is nearly in a crash, he pulls his car under the freeway and is himself struck by a passing automobile. Tyler drifts into unconsciousness...

But when he awakens, he's not in 2006 and everything around him has changed. Instead, Sam Tyler finds himself transported back in time to Manchester in the year 1973. But here's the strange part: he's still Sam Tyler, but he's now dressed in the height of 1973 vintage style: wide collar, awesome black leather jacket. He's still a copper, but his ID card shows that somehow he's been demoted from DCI to Detective Inspector. His car, formerly a Jeep, is now a typical 70s jalopy and contains transfer papers to the very precinct where Tyler worked in the present day. All rather odd, no?

Needless to say, Tyler is baffled. And more than a little freaked out about what's happening to him and to Maya. Strange aural and visual hallucinations seem to indicate that Tyler is in a coma in the present day as physicians attempt to revive him. But the level of detail in this 1973 world is too uncanny for Tyler to accept that it's all in his mind. Something else is at work here, something powerful and profound.

When Tyler is assigned to solve the crime of a missing local woman, he discovers another link to the present day. This killer is abducting women, keeping them alive for 24 hours, and then strangling them. If Tyler's going to save Maya, he has to stop this killer in 1973. The only problem is that crime-solving methods have grown a hell of a lot more sophisticated by 2006 and these police offers, led by DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), have no idea what they're up against. Fortunately, they have one thing that their predecessors didn't have: the time-traveling cop Sam Tyler. If Tyler is able to catch the serial killer now, will he be able to save Maya in the present day?

While Sam feels completely alone in this alien world (he was only four years old in 1973, after all), there is someone here who does reach out to him: adorable WPC Annie Cartwright (Liz White), a former psychology student turned officer who doesn't quite believe Sam's story about time travel. But Sam is determined to get back to the present day, no matter what the cost. That is, if all of this isn't just one big coma dream, after all...

Creators Chris Chibnall, Matthew Graham, and Ashley Pharoah have crafted an entire universe of possiblity for poor, tortured Detective Tyler and have given us a new twist on the familiar trope of time travel. Additionally, Life on Mars' sets and costumes are flawless and easily transport the viewer to a gritty 70s Manchester. I can only imagine how much fun it must have been to design this entire world and that dedication and level of perfection shines through on the screen.

Simm is a fantastic lead for this brilliant series, which sucks the viewer in from its opening minutes and never lets go. Life on Mars is a psychedelic roller coaster ride through the heart of 70s-era England, in the days before Maggie Thatcher, when The Who, Uriah Heep, and Bowie blared from record players and police officers represented The Law, but didn't mind bending it either. Simms turns in a fantastic and ultimately sympathetic performance of a detective solving the mystery of his own madness/time travel/fantasy. Glenister is riveting to watch as the gruff Gene Hunt, stuck in his ways, cracking jokes at Annie's expense, but somehow managing to keep these rowdy officers in line. White is the perfect blend of innocence and wisdom as attentive WPC Annie Cartwright. (Something tells me that if Tyler is stuck in 1973 for a while, romance will undoubtedly blossom between these two.) But what's the deal exactly with Annie's ex-boyfriend, psychologist Neil (Christopher Harper)? There's another connection to Tyler's "future" that hopefully will be fully investigated.

Ultimately, Life on Mars is unlike anything else currently on television: a gripping, trippy, and surreal mind-bender of a mystery. So while David E. Kelley is developing an adaptation of this series for American television, stick to the brilliant original UK version instead. After all, this is one Life that speaks for itself.

"Life on Mars" airs Monday evenings at 10 pm ET/PT on BBC America. Repeats air Sunday evenings at 9 pm ET/PT.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Big Brother: All-Stars (CBS); Fear Factor (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); According to Jim/George Lopez (ABC); House (FOX); Veronica Mars (UPN)

9 pm: Rock Star: Supernova (CBS); Last Comic Standing (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); The One: Making a Music Star (9-11 pm; ABC); House (FOX); Veronica Mars (UPN)

10 pm: 48 Hours Mystery (CBS); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

9 pm: Eureka on Sci-Fi.

The whimsical new sci-fi drama that's more Northern Exposure than Stargate. On tonight's episode ("Many Happy Returns"), Carter attends a funeral while a dark figure begins to materalize in the town of Eureka. Connection? I'd say so.


Anonymous said…
I had very high expectations for "Life on Mars" and I am happy to report that I was not let down. I'm not usually interested in crime drama but this puts a new twist on an old genre. It has a great cast, great music, and an engaging story. (Not to mention excellent 70's attire.) I will definitely continue to tune in.

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