Monday, February 13, 2006

That Other High Concept Detective Drama With Mars in the Title

The BBC's new Life on Mars has been making the rounds in my corner of the blogosphere/LJ (check out Martin Lewis' write-up at Strange Horizons, and these discussions of a viewer's reverse culture shock and possible directions for the second season), and on the strength of so many positive voices I decided to give it a look. I've watched the first five episodes (out of eight--this is British television, remember), with the sixth airing tonight. The show's premise is that a modern Manchester police detective named Sam Tyler wakes up after a car accident and finds himself in 1973, still named Sam Tyler and still a policeman. Formerly a Detective Chief Inspector with his own department, Sam is now a Detective Inspector under the thumb of DCI Gene Hunt--as Lewis describes him, "an unreconstructed Northerner and dinosaur copper who has not yet been usurped by nimbler mammals like Tyler". Hunt is perfectly comfortable beating up suspects, planting incriminating evidence, and treating everyone who doesn't conform to his rigid standards of behavior (including reluctant and frightened witnesses) as if they were criminals. His approach to crime-solving is to follow his instincts (the first person to speak in a crowd of witnesses is the murderer is one of his more memorable rules of thumb), and he is both baffled and frustrated by Sam's insistence on proper protocol and his reliance on forensic evidence.

Cute and intriguing as it can sometimes be, Mars' storytelling often leans towards the predictable and the simplistic, with happy endings that are often unearned or unrealistic (Sam and Gene arrest a prominent mobster, but the narrative cuts away before he can call his bought political cronies or have the sole witness against him silenced). As detective shows go, Mars is very nearly a dinosaur itself--the unlikely pairing premise that was already getting stale around the time of the show's setting. It's John Simm's turn as Tyler that first clues us in to Mars' unsuspected depths. He brings an unusual energy to his portrayal of Sam, a man neither as naive as he is perceived nor as weathered as he would like to believe. Simm's performance combines intelligence and passion, and he does an excellent job of letting us see both the wheels turning in Sam's head and the juices boiling in his stomach. Mars' writers deserve praise here as well. Sam is a character who could very easily have been reduced to a stereotype--the unintuitive egghead who needs to be taught about old-fashioned policing; the emotionally connected 21st century man out of place in a time in which he's expected to be stoic and nonchalant; the bleeding-heart liberal brought face-to-face with the brutality of police corruption. To their credit, the writers never simplify Sam. There's an uncompromising toughness to the character that constantly confounds our (and Gene's) expectations of him. In spite of a few glitches--mostly the writers making Sam stupid and naive in order to further the plot--there is a believable human being at Mars' core, and he lends his depth to the entire show.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said of the contemporary characters, very few of whom achieve even a second dimension. That the secondary characters--DC Chris Skelton, a well meaning simpleton; DC Ray Carling, Sam's alleged but ultimately powerless nemesis within the force; WPC Annie Cartwright, the obligatory love interest--are one-note is bad enough, but as Sam's primary antagonist-cum-ally, Gene Hunt has failed to achieve the kind of complexity required to truly make Mars a worthy meditation on the nature of police work. Philip Glenister brings an appealing clownishness to his portrayal of Gene, and it's largely his doing that Gene is as likable as he is (a likability that is often unearned--I shouldn't like a person who makes fun of the disabled and accosts a female witness with crude jokes about her breasts, not to mention a man who is as casually and brutally violent as Gene is), but the writers have failed to give him Sam's extra dimensions. Partly, I suspect, this is due to the character's mandate--Gene may very well not be a complicated person. He has rigid notions of right and wrong, and equally rigid notions of how people should behave (men should be powerful, brave, capable of throwing and taking a punch, interested in sports, cards and drinking; women should be pretty and accommodating; everyone should be respectful of policemen). But when the writers give us a character who first characterizes himself as a 'deputy to the law' and then proposes railroading a suspect and taking bribes from a mobster (because he 'keeps his streets clean'), they should give some thought to tying these inconsistencies together into a coherent character.

Of course, the fact that the contemporary characters are relatively flat makes some amount of sense when we remember the more outlandish aspects of Mars' premise. Underlying the predictable detective drama is an eerie genre mystery--what has happened to Sam? Is he, as the opening voice-over puts it, insane, or in a coma, or traveling through time? Is he back in 1973 for a reason? Mars' writers do an excellent job of juxtaposing the familiar and the unfamiliar, in essence putting us inside Sam's head. Not only do we experience Sam's culture shock at being transposed to a completely different era (and this might be a good place to offer some well-deserved kudos to the show's production staff and their excellent set and prop work), but along with him, we also hear sounds that seem to be coming from a hospital room, have strange dreams (poor Sam hasn't had a decent night's sleep since his accident), hear voices coming from the television set, and are visited by a deeply frightening little girl who wants Sam to lie down and die. Mars' early episodes did a good job of marrying reality and fantasy--in the second episode, Sam is visiting a hospital room when all of sudden, the lights around him go out and he is trapped in the room as his nurses complain that his life support equipment has shorted out--without committing to any single solution. Recently, however, both the eeriness and the constant questioning have been toned down. Sam seems more comfortable in his new surroundings, less eager to leave, and the writers have taken to using the show's supernatural elements as a shortcut to character exploration. In episode four, Sam's dreams lead him to his mother; in episode five, the little girl's taunting has more to do with Sam's troubled relationship with his (apparently absent) father.

The previews for tonight's episode suggest a return to the show's central mystery--a hostage crisis parallels the upcoming shut-off of Sam's life support--but I'm still worried by the Mars writers' treatment of their show's genre elements. Is Life on Mars a detective series with a vaguely SF-nal premise, or a genre show that tells detective stories? I'm not asking this question simply out of idle definitional curiosity, but because I'm genuinely concerned about the show's direction. I've seen too many alleged genre shows (Early Edition and Joan of Arcadia come to mind, but there are many others) that used a fantastic premise as a jumping-off point but never bothered to logically explain or explore that premise in a way that wasn't desultory and unsatisfying. I've yet to be convinced that Life on Mars' writers are genuinely interested in solving or expanding their mystery or in creating a coherent alternate universe, and until I am convinced of this I'll have trouble giving the show my heart.

It certainly doesn't help that, of the proposed solutions to Sam's predicament, there isn't a single one that is both satisfying and logical. I think it's safe to assume that Sam isn't crazy--it would be very strange and quite a bit more adventurous than I think they're willing to be for the writers to reveal that their protagonist is a nutter (and that his madness perfectly mirrors our existence). The time travel solution, although compelling, doesn't hold water for the simple reason that if he is traveling in time, Sam has already cancelled out the circumstances of his accident--by capturing a murderer in 1973 and suppressing evidence of his insanity (thus sending him to prison instead of a mental hospital), Sam has negated the circumstances of his girlfriend's kidnapping, and it was his distress over that kidnapping that caused him to be hit by a car in the first place. The coma solution, which seems to be where the show is headed, makes the most sense but also cheapens the significance of everything that's happened in the show's run. The people Sam has been interacting with, whom he has come to care about, are figments of his imagination (which, admittedly, justifies the fact that they're rather flat characters). The good he's done by solving crimes and helping their victims doesn't matter. The jeopardy that he and the other characters are sometimes placed in is meaningless. Sam is, essentially, playing with himself, and although we could see his coma hallucination as a way for him to work out some of his own deep-seated issues, particularly about the kind of policeman he wants to be, the fact remains that as presented on the show, these dilemmas simply aren't sophisticated enough to excuse the fact that what's happening on the screen is just wankery.

With only three episodes left in the season, I'm hopeful that we'll see some resolution of the season's mystery (although a second season has already been ordered, which may make the writers reluctant to commit themselves to a solution). Certainly there's enough wit and intelligence in the show's writing to justify some cautious optimism, even from a jaded genre fan such as myself. I'll certainly be watching until the end of the season, and even if the ending turns Life on Mars into an Early Edition clone, I don't think I will have completely wasted my time with it. It's a fun and well-made show (not to mention a very funny one), and definitely worth a look.

The only downside is, now I've got that bloody David Bowie song stuck in my head.

4 comments:

Dotan said...

Ah! Life on Mars! I still have episode 5 in the queue.
Anyway, while there is some clever play on the "is he in a coma or isn't he?" angle, and I actually think that the writers left themselves enough leeway in the first episode to keep the time travel option solidly on the table: 20 years is a long time, and it's still very possible (at least as far as I've seen) that Sam hasn't changed his timeline yet.
Anyway, my preferred answer to the question of "coma or time travel?" is still "both".
But dwelling on the "genre" angle seems to me to be a bit missing the point of this show. Life on Mars is all about the high-concept of "modern cop stranded in a 70s cop show": it's "CSI meets The Sweeney", and like that pioneer work of concussive time travel, Twain's Connecticut Yankee, how we got there isn't the point. The point is a postmodern retro remix of classic cop shows.
My favorite bits so far haven't been the creepy and surreal "is this reality?" sequences, but the small, jarring scenes where the writers drive home the point that 1974 is another planet: like when Sam hovers around a shooting victim as she is being evacuated to hospital, shouting first aid instructions at the crew, until one of them turns at him and says, clearly annoyed: "what do you want from me, I'm just an ambulance driver".
Oddly, Gene Hunt's character, the grotesque mirror/loving pastiche of the 70s TV copper is more familiar to me from comics' pastiche - parts of Grant Morrison's Invisibles and some Warren Ellis characters are homages to the same British 70s cop shows as this one.
Even more oddly - this struck home in the episode dealing with the textile factory - the last thing I was Philip Glenister and John Simm together in was Clocking Off, the BBC drama about workers in a textile factory (well, Simm was a worker; Glenister played the factory owner, which was even nastier than Gene Hunt).
Disclosure: my dad owned a textile factory, my mother's family are from around Manchester, and I'm about the same age as Sam.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's no question that I'm coming at Life on Mars from the perspective of a genre fan, not a cop show or detective show fan (which, Veronica Mars notwithstanding, I most emphatically am not). It remains to be seen whether the writers and I are on the same page.

Frankly, the culture shock aspect of the show, while diverting, isn't that critical to my enjoyment of it. It makes for some neat jokes and some neater WTF moments, but it also strikes me as a gimmick that will grow old very quickly. It probably doesn't help that I am neither English, nor was I alive in the early seventies.

Paul Brown said...

"It probably doesn't help that I am neither English, nor was I alive in the early seventies."

This is more than likely a factor; I have been enjoying LoM a great deal, but then I am English, I was alive in the early seventies and thus the cars / outfits / scenery speak directly to the child inside who still thinks that Ford Cortinas are the best cars ever and the overtones of the Sweeney et al lend it a hook that will be lost on some people.
That said, I am still confident that the show does have a direction in mind and that, hopefully, there won't be a second series. BBC writers can look towards their next project more easily than American network writers, so the idea of a one off series is not uncommon (although a series / extension can often be tagged on afterwards - see "Northern Lights" for a particularly painful example).

Paul Brown said...

"BBC writers can look towards their next project more easily than American network writers, so the idea of a one off series is not uncommon"

A second series has now been officially confirmed. "Would you like any sauce on those words before you eat them, sir?"

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