Gene: "I think you've forgotten who you're talking to."
Sam: "An overweight, over the hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding."
Gene: "You make that sound like a bad thing."
This series is a gem. When I first rented it, I was expecting a procedural cop show with a science fiction twist. And it is. But it's so much more than that.
John Simm gives a brilliant, multi-layered performance as Sam Tyler, an unhappy detective chief inspector in 2006, who is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. He's still Sam Tyler and still working at the same police station -- but things are much, much different. What has happened to Sam? Is he insane, in a coma, or is he truly stuck in the past? Life on Mars is especially intriguing because of the way Sam's old life in the future seems to be connected to his current life in the past. Did God toss him back to 1973 in a sort of homage to Quantum Leap so that Sam could fix what was wrong in 2006, really really early?
Sam Tyler is a professional, by-the-book, science-and-procedure sort of cop. His new boss Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) is a sloppy seat-of-your-pants go-with-your-gut cop who flirts with corruption to get the job done. Like Simm, Philip Glenister gives a brilliant, multi-layered performance, with one addition: he is exceptionally funny. I think I fell in love with Gene Hunt in the pilot episode when he told three kids in the street that if they didn't watch his car and make certain nothing happened to it while he was gone, he would go to their house and stamp on all of their toys. Sam's continuing conflict with Gene as the two of them try to work together is the heart of the series.
Utterly confused about what has happened to him, Sam confides in a police constable named Annie (Liz White), who, unsurprisingly in the 1970s, is treated as a brainless twit because she's a woman. Sam's relationship with Annie is satisfying because he naturally treats her like an equal, and she begins to respond like one.
So we have mystery, drama, comedy, and intriguing fantasy elements, as well as some subtle romance. We have really cool music from the 1970s (the title of the series is a line from a David Bowie song). And we have a truly poignant story. As I watched the series, I began to care deeply about Sam and what was happening to him. I couldn't wait for the series finale, and dreaded it at the same time.
I'm sure all you British fans who read reviews on my site have already seen Life on Mars and are going, well, duh, of course it's brilliant, Billie, where have you been? So I guess I'm speaking mostly to my American readers who never caught this series on BBC America. If you like intelligent, well-written, well-acted fantasy with heart, I highly recommend this show. It's not a huge commitment, either, since the entire run consists of only sixteen episodes.
Actually, that's the only thing wrong with Life on Mars. It was over way too soon for me.
There's a spinoff series called Ashes to Ashes which is not yet available on Netflix. I've nearly decided I don't want to try it; I sort of want to leave my love for Life on Mars as it is, unsullied by any other stories in the same 'verse. There's also an American version of Life on Mars that lasted only one season, too. I have no desire to try it at all. Should I try either, or both? I'd be interested in hearing your opinions, so please -- comments welcome. (As always. I love your comments. Even when you tell me I'm being pissy.)
Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.