No More Life on Mars

Friday, April 03, 2009
I don't know what's worse when your favorite TV series gets canceled after just one season: when the network doesn't bother to give it a proper wrap-up episode to explain all of the unanswered questions, or they give you one so bad it makes you feel like a dimwit for even watching it in the first place.

At least, that's sort of how I feel a couple of days after the finale to the U.S. version of Life on Mars, which just ended on ABC. Last year, I wrote somewhat cynically about the show, since it was a copy of a British series and because other network shows with a retro theme have died early deaths. The show revolved around a handsome detective, Sam Tyler (played by Jason O'Mara), in the year 2008 who finds himself transported to the year 1973 after being struck by a car. Goodbye mobile devices and Twitter; hello polyester, newscaster hair, and brute police force. Initially, I didn't think I'd get into it...too violent, I thought at the time, too much a man's show. Boy, was I wrong...this was (in my opinion anyway) the best show on free network television...tangible chemistry between the actors, imaginative story lines that capture the 70s era, and lots of humor. You got a real feel for what it was like to struggle as a working woman in the decade. Plus a credible surrounding cast that included Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli (his porn 'stache was a character of its own.) How could you go wrong?

With a sloppy, slap-dashed, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you-ending that insulted the fans' inteligence, that's how. For those of you not familiar with the show, ABC teased us for 17 episodes by saying that on next week's installment, Sam would "learn more clues" about why he was in 1973 and if he can ever make his way back to the present time. He was tormented by visions of a lunar land rover that showed up in forms both tiny enough to crawl in and out of people's facial orifices, or as toys that would track Sam down and appear to scan or take a photograph or his image before scooting away. He received cryptic calls that seemed to offer insight into why he was in 70s and his purpose for being there. Sam also encountered his child self, his mother, and his violent father during his journey. He also had a tryst with his childhood babysitter and along the way fell in love with Annie, a female cop in his squad who aspired of becoming a detective during this male-centric, chauvinist time. All along, he pondered whether his trip was the result of alien abduction, lunacy, or if he were in a coma or purgatory.

None of which mattered. Because, as we discovered in the finale's final 5 minutes or so, we suddenly see Sam and his fellow cops waking up "Alien"-style, out of sleep pods. Turns out none of them were police all along, but astronauts. They're traveling on-board a ship on their way to...Mars. It's the year 2035, and they've been asleep for two years. Sam has dreamed his whole elaborate mystery as virtual reality to stimulate the mind during the long journey (Ray, as played by Michael Imperioli, and now cleanly shaven, wisely chose a sex fantasy involving 200 women who either looked like Daryl Hannah or Michelle Pfieffer.) Yes, Dorothy, wake up because you dreamed the whole thing. Annie is the crew's commander. Gene Hunt, the squad's leader, is really Major Tom, a nod to the recurring David Bowie theme. And, oh, he's Sam's father, despite the fact that Harvey Keitel, at least in the looks department, is like the chimp to hunky Jason O'Mara's Tarzan. The crew is there on a "gene hunt" to find life on Mars.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. April fool's indeed.

Why would Sam be seeing his child form in 1973 if we wasn't really born by that year to being with? Why did he kiss Annie in 1973 and decide that his purpose for being there was to meet and fall in love with her? And what about Lisa Bonet, who played Sam's 2008 girlfriend Maya?

There are a few old shows that unwisely played the "it was all a dream" card. One notable one is the 80s hospital drama St. Elsewhere. In the final episode, we learned the entire series was the imagination of an autistic boy with a snow globe (!!!) And on Newhart, Bob Newhart awakens to find himself in bed with his previous TV wife, Suzanne Pleashette. This lazy tactic may work better for comedies, but for serious dramas it just makes the writers look like imbeciles. I can appreciate that there were only three weeks once Life on Mars was canceled to come up with a finale, but I think ABC could've done better than this. I would've preferred the British ending, which shows the UK Sam Tyler, now back in the present but feeling depressed - there's no emotional connection in the current year for him. So he leaps off a building to commit suicide and finds himself back in 1973, which is exactly where he feels he belongs. I feel like renting the UK series now.

ABC dropped the ball big time. They barely promoted this fine show beyond its first few episodes, switched its night, took it off the air for two months, and now this.

What do you think? Are there any shows that had disappointing finales for you?


  1. - Absolute favorite TV series this season.
    - Smart with heart!
    - I appreciated every week.
    - Finale was regretful, but
    I understand effects of cancellation after-shock.

  2. You should really check out the original U.K. version of Life on Mars. It's better and has a much better conclusion. It will fill the Life-on-Mars-shaped hole in your life, I'm sure. :)
    There's a sequel set in the '80s (Ashes to Ashes) as well.

  3. I totally agree with you about the ending of this show. I'm watching the British version of it for the first time now. Missed the first 2 episodes though but I can always take it out of the library.

  4. I sooo agree with you - LOVED the British series, tried the US version but found it pretty unwatchable yet I went back just to see how they handled the finale. I could NOT believe it! The end of the UK series carries one of the most powerful pieces of television I've ever seen (Sam's rooftop scene in the present day) and one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting as well.

    Apart from which - I just came across your blog this morning, am enjoying it so much and not getting anything I should be doing done :)


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