Monday, January 11, 2016

Life on Mars: A Telling Critique on Life and TV Watching Itself, and a David Bowie Homage

David Bowie died yesterday,  January 10, 2016. I wrote this post back in 2008, when I discovered the compelling BBC series Life on Mars in a marathon (that being the days before the present-day bingeing.) I am the age of those for whom David Bowie was truly the soundtrack of our lives. I will admit that by 2008 I had not connected with that towering talent for a while, since the days of dancing in clubs. And so reconnecting with Bowie was another thrill of finding this series and one of my personal memories when I heard of our enormous cultural loss.

I have this photo of the great Bowie above my desk at work, I have for years, and oddly enough, I found myself wearing a poncho this week. The seventies seep in wherever they can.

I ran into a marathon of the British Life on Mars one recent Saturday on BBC America, and I was enthralled. How great that Bowie's song could inspire an entire series, and such an imaginative one at that.

[Spoilers now.]

DCI Sam Tyler of the Greater Manchester Police gives a quick, clear exposition for the series in the opening credits: "My name’s Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up back in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."

It’s a tantalizing premise. Sam (John Simm, the Master for Doctor Who fans) walks into his police precinct, but it’s filled with typewriters and old style lightening, men in wide ties and leisure suits. To his cop colleagues, he has been transferred from Hyde. He starts to work cases—what else is he going to do?

The center of the show is his relationship with boss DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), and the clash of cultures, methods, sensibilities, and knowledge. The music, the writing, the acting, the storytelling are all stellar.

And the mystery. Things start seeping into Sam’s world. He hears voices of doctors. He hears his mother say she’s still with him. He hears deafening sounds. Which start to stack the deck to his being in a coma, but the suspense is very well played out.

And now for a word about the American version: for me it pales in comparison, but it may grow into its own solid new piece. I also agree with added issue of the American Sam waking up at the base of the World Trade Center. He didn’t have enough of the emotional response that anyone would have with that experience. For great discussion on this, pop over to Alan Sepinwall

Back to the Brits. What also gives the series its strength is the ending. For the whole series, Sam just wants to go home. This homesickness is a powerful, poignant part of his character. Finally, in a life-and-death shootout between his colleagues and the bad guys, he wakes up in the hospital. He has been in a coma. The series has been in his head.

Now we are all back in 2006. Sam gets out of the hospital, and returns to work to the wistfully distinctive strains of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s “Over the Rainbow.”

The coloring becomes cold blues and blacks, instead of the warmth of the seventies color palette. That visual sums up what he’s feeling: his friends, his life is back with Gene and the guys and WPC Annie Cartwright in 1973.

And so he walks out of a meeting, goes to the roof, and jumps. It is a startling moment of television.

He wakes up back in the action in 1973, between the cops and the bad guys.

I had two strong reactions to that ending. The first is an inverse-Hamlet fear. “There’s the rub.” How did Sam know he would get back to 1973? What if he committed suicide, and didn’t “perchance to dream?”

But more importantly, the theme of “living in your head” was a subtle subtext to the series. If real life is boring, you can create a whole world in your head that is preferable. And that includes the worlds we ingest while watching television. At the very end of the series, the Test Patern girl-—a British institution who popped up on various episodes-—appears with her clown, and leans forward and turns off the tv. That wakes us the viewer up. That puts the viewer back into 2008. We are all Sam Tyler.

Watching tv or a film is a reality, but it is also in place of reality. I never met a Sonny Crockett, but I was attracted to that character-—as I would have been to a man if I had met him--and wanted to spend time with him. And so watching Miami Vice on Friday night when it was first on was more enjoyable than going out.

All these ideas enriched the Brit Life on Mars. We’ll see if the American version offers anything more on the subject. (Update 2016: It did. Let's just say that it took the Bowie song very literally, 8 years before The Martian.)

Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

And the character DCI Gene Hunt naturally lead to a spate of fan videos set to the great "Jean Genie."