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06 February, 2010

DVD Review: "Life on Mars" The Complete Series

Title: “Life on Mars” The Complete Series

Year of Release—Film: 2008-2009

Year of Release—DVD: 2009

DVD Label: ABC Studios / Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Winner of the 2008 in Review TV Show of the Year, as well as the 2009 DVD Box Set of the Year, ABC’s ‘70’s Police Drama / Science-Fiction series “Life on Mars” was one of the bright lights in the network television firmament a year ago. The story of NYPD Detective Sam Tyler, who finds himself transported from 2008 to 1973 after a car accident, is an example of what television can do well, and that is develop characters and storylines in a way that’s impossible for a two-hour film to duplicate. The ability to spend weeks or months fleshing out the complexities of character and plot allows for a series that involves it’s viewers, drawing them into the world the writers create. Fans of the show were pulled into the ‘70’s with Tyler, and like him were fascinated by the mystery of his existence.

Based on the popular BBC program of the same name, the series, at least this incarnation of it, is the brainchild of André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, who adapted it for American television. Though I’ve not seen the original version, I have heard that there are some significant differences. As it stands however, it is an almost perfect example of an extended mini-series, with the entire arc began and completed in a single season.

The first episode, “Out Here in the Fields,” introduces us to Sam Tyler, an ordinary NYPD detective juggling his personal and professional lives, doing a decent job of keeping both straight. His partner, who’s also his fiancée, and he are working a case, on the hunt for a serial killer. Though they manage to find a suspect, they’re forced to release him for lack of evidence. Maya, Tyler’s partner, disappears while following the suspect. Tyler goes straight to the suspect’s home to find her, but is struck by a car getting out of his SUV.

He awakens in a vacant lot. The suspect’s building is gone, as is the very street on which it was located. His SUV is gone, replaced by a vintage ‘70’s muscle car. His business suit is gone; he’s now dressed in a leather sport jacket and bell-bottoms. The same song is still playing in the car, though instead of coming from an iPod docked to the car’s stereo, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is blasting from an 8-track. Even his badge and ID have changed. The biggest shock comes when he looks towards downtown Manhattan—only to see the World Trade Center’s twin towers rising above the skyline. This begins a quest for answers that will last through the entire series, answers to questions such as where is Tyler, how did he arrive there-—and how does he get home again?

The cast is terrific, led by Jason O’Mara as Sam Tyler. Confused and frightened, uncertain where or when he is, or whether or not he’s alive or dead, we see the world through Tyler’s eyes, with the same modern sensibilities. O’Mara does a wonderful job making the character credible, which helps sell the credibility of the series.

Supporting O’Mara is a cast worthy of a big-screen feature film. Harvey Keitel, the iconic ‘tough-guy’ star of films such as MEAN STREETS, RESERVOIR DOGS, and PULP FICTION plays Lt. Gene Hunt, the head of the 125th Precinct’s Detective Squad. Hunt is a hard-as-nails old-school cop, not afraid to beat a confession out of a suspect, or plant evidence if it’s the only way to bust the bad guys. He rules “Huntlandia,” as he refers to the 125th, with an iron fist, and frequently clashes with Tyler, who insists on doing things by the book.

Michael Imperioli, best known for his work on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” and currently in theaters in Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES, plays Detective 3rd Grade Ray Carling. Carling, jealous of Tyler, the ‘new kid’ who took his slot and his promotion to 2nd Grade, is a rude, sexist, racist Neanderthal of a ‘70’s stereotype. He’s also determined and aggressive, driven to keep his corner of New York City reasonably clean and free of crime. By Tyler’s 2008 standards, he’s a corrupt cop, deserving of criminal charges himself. In 1973, however, he’s one of the best cops in the precinct.

One of the most striking differences Tyler has to deal with is a precinct house without a single black or female detective. In fact, there’s only one policewoman in the precinct—Annie “No-Nuts” Morris. Nicknamed that by the detectives due to her obvious lack of said appendages, Norris is played by Gretchen Mol. Mol, who starred as pin-up queen Bettie Page in 2005’s THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, perfectly captures the image of beauty in the ‘70’s—a lithe, trim figure and a lovely face framed by upswept golden hair, she could’ve been one of Charlie’s Angels. Norris is Tyler’s only confidant, the only person with whom he shares the truth of his existence from the beginning; at least, the truth as he understands it. She becomes his rock, the one fixed point in a world so much like his own yet so different.

Not only is the casting superb, but the design of the production is as well. The texture of the ‘70’s is perfectly captured, both visually and musically. Visually, the decade was unforgettably unique in terms of style, from clothing to art to the ubiquitous avocado-green kitchen appliances, and the producers have done an excellent job recreating that style. For those of us who remember the nightmare of plaid polyester bell-bottoms, few things are more suggestive of the ‘70’s than the sight of long hair and hippie fashion.

One of the factors that is more evocative of those years is the music, and Life on Mars benefits from a rich soundtrack that both sets the mood and frames the action. From the thematic “Life on Mars,” to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which supplied the title of the pilot episode, (a device that would be repeated several times) to the climactic “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” by Elton John, the music of the period is woven throughout the series, helping bring the decade to life.

In each episode, Tyler is confronted by situations that offer glimpses of the truth behind his condition yet never seem to reveal enough to provide any answers—only provoke more questions. Is he in a coma as a result of the hit-and-run in 2008? Is he actually back in 1973, and if so, how? Is the 1973 reality the ‘truth’, and his 2008 memories only an illusion? Could he even be dead and trapped in some personal hell?

In later episodes Tyler meets his mother and father, discovering difficult facts about them; has an opportunity to stop a murderer that he failed to stop in time in the future; carries on a romantic liaison with Hunt’s daughter in the precinct’s file room; and infiltrates an Irish gang, giving the Irish-born O’Mara a chance to speak in his natural voice. As the series progresses, Tyler begins to adjust to the world of 1973. He forms bonds with his colleagues, and begins to build some sort of life, while never giving up the search for the truth.

He never stops looking for the answers, and when he does find them, it’s not what anyone was expecting. Some fans hated the way the series ended, some loved it. Personally, the only thing I hated about it was it’s necessity. I quite frankly loved the show, and had hopes that the solution to the mystery would elude Tyler, and us, for a few more seasons. Still, the ending satisfied me, even though it wasn’t the one I was expecting.

As I mentioned earlier, this set was my choice for DVD Box Set of the Year for 2009, and there are many reasons why. First, and most importantly, I love the show. Seldom does network television try to reach beyond the tried-and-true, to take a gamble on something different. “Life on Mars” was one of those rare occurrences, and I’m glad they took the risk. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a television drama this novel and captivating.

Yet that’s not the only reason to own this release. Unusually for this type of set, there are a number of special features present. There’s the obligatory “Making-of” segment, an exploration of the show’s ‘mythology’; a day-in-the-life segment following O’Mara as he works on the series finale; deleted scenes; and a tour of the set featuring O’Mara and ‘70’s icon Lee Majors. Add to that several commentary tracks, and you have a truly worthwhile addition to your video library.

If you are a lover of Science-Fiction, Mysteries, Cop Shows, or all three then I strongly recommend that you give this series, and this set, a try. If you have fond memories of the ‘70’s, then give it a try. If you were alive in the ‘70’s but don’t really have any clear memories of the decade, then give it a try. In other words, just give it a try.

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