Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Life on Mars" pours salt in fans' wounds

It's been several days since ABC aired the last episode of its unsuccessful freshman series "Life on Mars." In spite of its low ratings, the drama managed to attract a vocal cult of fans, including yours truly.
So you might have been wondering why it's taken me so long to write about my thoughts on the show's final episode, which finally provided an answer as to how Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) ended up in 1973. Well, let me tell you why: I've been busy processing my rage.
I hated that final episode so much, it literally left me speechless. I mean hated it. Hated it to the point where just thinking about it made me seethe. Hated it in a way that I have hated no other episode of a TV show. Words do not exist to express my complete and total dissatisfaction with that episode.
If you're still with me, allow me to explain exactly what I didn't like.
For those who haven't seen the show, a brief summary. "Life on Mars" was a remake of a British series about Sam, a modern cop who, following a car accident, ends up being transported to 1973. He's still a cop, but one who must live in an outdated world, working for bulldog-ish Lt. Gene Hunt (a hilarious Harvey Keitel) and toiling alongside colleagues like mustachioed misogynist Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli, also great fun), sweet innocent Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy) and spunky, marginalized policewoman Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol).
He tries to figure out how he ended up in this strange world, and how he can return to his old life.
During his time in the 1970s, Sam ran into figures from his own past, including his mom and dad. In this last episode, Sam had to rescue a younger version of himself from his violent jerk of a father. He succeeds, then realizes that he doesn't actually want to leave 1973. He likes the guys at the precinct, loves Annie, and is getting used to this life.
Let me clarify that I had no problem with any of this stuff. I always enjoyed the stories about Sam confronting his past, particularly the scenes between him and his mom. I loved Sam admitting he had feelings for Annie; loved him hugging Gene once he realized he wanted to stay in 1973. This was all fine.
It's what happened after he hugged Gene that pissed me off royally.
At that moment, the screen broke down, and we saw a flash of scenes from Sam's 1973 life flash by in blur. Then, Sam woke up, IN 2033!!
It turned out that he, Annie, Ray and Chris were all astronauts traveling to Mars (!) and, during their trip, their minds were occupied by some sort of fantasy. Sam chose to watch himself as a cop in 2008 -- but the transmission malfunctioned and he "traveled" to 1973 in the dream/hallucination. Oh, and Gene Hunt was actually the name of their mission -- not a person. The Gene in Sam's "fantasy" was based on Sam's dad, Major Tom (also played by Keitel), which I guess explains all the David Bowie references in earlier episodes.
To repeat: the last 5 to 10 minutes of this show explained that EVERYTHING that came before it was basically untrue. It pretty much negated the entire series, which made me so mad I could spit. Why did I invest time in this show, if it was all going to be undone in the final moments?
The twist might have been OK had it been well-executed, but it felt so corny and tacked on. Most likely, the writers and producers rushed to come up with a finish once they learned the show wouldn't be renewed.
For the record, this is not how the original British version ended. I haven't seen it, but I have read what happened in that ending and it sounds a million times better (no, I won't spoil it here, but feel free to look it up). I understand the desire of those involved with the American version to come up with something different, but was this really the best they could do?
Though the American "Life on Mars" wasn't the best show on TV, it was solidly entertaining. I loved O'Mara's performance as the befuddled Sam, and really connected with a lot of the characters. But this was just so awful, it flushes all the warm feelings I had about this show right down the toilet.
Great. Now I'm all angry again.
Thanks a lot, "Life on Mars"!


Jen said...

I felt just as cheated as you seem to feel after the ending to the series finale of Twin Peaks. It was horrid.

I just wanted to let you know that I feel your pain. It is so upsetting to get invested in a show and then feel as if you've been screwed with. Or punched solidly in the gut.

Anonymous said...

I hear many people like you who are angry about the ending, but no-one ever offers a better ending.

How exactly would YOU end it, and satisfy the vast majority of fans?

A coma? A dream? Are those not just weaker versions of the same thing -- a stasis chamber dreaming/fantasy machine?

So what then? A true time travel experience run by some powerful cabal of rich people from the future? Please. Does that sound more plausible or more satisfying to you? Again, what would make you happy?

Anonymous said...

Why do I get the feeling that no matter how they ended the show, you'd find something to complain about.

Just so everybody's clear, Life on Mars gets canceled. The producers try their best to bring a story to a conclusion, that probably should have taken the lifetime of the show to setup, in 1 episode...and you're going to bitch about flawed execution? Gimme a break!

None of the subtle nuances that made this show great could have been planted to setup this ending so that it didn't feel rushed. But, news flash...IT WAS RUSHED! With the music and pop culture references, this could have been the perfect ending to a great series. As it was an ending.

Count yourself lucky that they actually decided to pull back the curtain and let the fans know what they had in mind as a series finale, instead of just leaving everybody hanging with no explanation at all.

You wanna complain about series finales, pick any number of shows that ended on the producers time table...not the networks. Beating up on a great show, ended early by short sighted network executives just seems petty, because you didn't get the ending the way you wanted it.


TV Writer said...

Again, as I mentioned in my post, I didn't see anything wrong with the original ending, or possibly a variation on it (incidentally, the original series had a limited number of episodes in which to tell its story, as well, so I'm sure it could be done). In fact, if the series had ended with Sam telling the unseen caller that he likes 1973 and doesn't want to leave, that would have satisfied me, too.
I just thought the ending was a bit cheap and sloppy, and not respectful to fans. If you disagree, I appreciate that. But I don't think my dismay was unwarranted.