I've been addicted to time travel-themed science fiction since around the time Marty McFly was first revving his DeLorean to 88 mph in a frenzied lap around the Twin Pines Mall. So it's no surprise I'd latch onto a program about a 21st-century police detective magically transported to the 1970s. Of course, ABC killed the show prematurely, and the show's writers must have known it was coming because they tacked on an improbable series ending.
Two years before Life on Mars debuted in America, Britain had already aired its own version on BBC. And with the British version's second, and final, season released on DVD at the end of November, it means we can finally fully compare the two.
In both shows, we see modern-day policeman Sam Tyler struck by a car only to wake up in 1973. He's still a cop, but the precinct he wanders into treats him as a transfer. So has he really traveled back in time? Is he in a coma? Or is he just nuts? That's what he must discover, all while learning to cope with the bizarrely outdated policing methods of yesteryear.
Archetypes of the day surround Sam. Grizzled commanding officer Gene refuses to play by the rules, but loves his city. Ray is a sexist, racist, off-color detective who achieves decent results. Chris is the fresh-faced rookie, struggling with social norms and proper police procedure. Then there's Annie: a generally dismissed quasi police psychologist, treated as second-class because she's a woman. Sam and Annie develop a thing, but you're never really sure where it's going.
Featuring now-classic cars, a rockin' throwback soundtrack, butterfly collars and bellbottoms aplenty, Life on Mars--on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean--recaptures the 1970s. The American version is too Hollywood-ed out to be authentic drama, but the fun meter is turned up. The ABC interpretations of Gene (Harvey Keitel) and Ray (Michael Imperioli) are classic lovable thugs. And while the Sams--American and British--are perhaps each as likeable as the next, the British version wins on almost all other fronts: more drama, more grit, more realism and a far more appreciable ending.
To get the full effect, try it my way: Watch the 17, 40-minute episodes of America's offering first. Then delve into Britain's 16, hour-long installments and you'll get one show with two interpretations of characters and two starkly different conclusions.
I promise neither series is a waste of time. And unless you've got Doc Brown's DeLorean parked in your garage, time is too precious to waste.