Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.
I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.
What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.
Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.
And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.
I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.
What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.