Sometimes it feels like people who make and develop television shows always try to milk a series just a little beyond the ability of the original idea to sustain interest. I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't know how many times I've liked the first two, maybe even three seasons, of a show, but after that watched in dismay as it became almost a caricature of itself. Sure everybody likes a successful television show, and actors need the work, but wouldn't everybody be better served if people were left wanting more than feeling sick to death of something?
Everything needs an ending, of some sort of another, and the failure of so many television shows is their inability to deliver a resolution. Either they fade away from neglect or they are cancelled abruptly before they are able to wrap things up. So instead of everybody involved being in demand because they've generated such great memories among the public and the industry, they get shunted aside as either failures or has-beens. The next time you see the former leads from the show they're making guest appearances on something like Celebrity Hollywood Squares and they look like someone whose face used to be famous.
These flaws become glaringly obvious when you encounter a show which is handled properly by being brought to a successful conclusion. Those of you who have had the pleasure of experiencing Life On Mars: Series One will be thrilled to know that the producers and writers of the series have not only managed to match what they brought to life in Series One, but have surpassed it. They've not only retained all that was fresh and exciting about the first season, with Life On Mars: Series 2, the complete second season on four DVDs being released by Acorn Media on November 24th/09, they find a way to up the stakes for all involved and bring the series to a resolution that remains true to the characters and the story line.
Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Sam Tyler (John Simm) of the Manchester Police force in England is struck by a car in 2006, and the next thing he knows he's gone back in time more then thirty years and he's a Detective Inspector (DI) in the same city in 1973. Aside from having to deal with the obvious differences between the two eras ("Where's my mobile (phone)?" "You're mobile what?") where the culture shock hits him hardest is on the job. Aside from the primitive working conditions - when he asks where his PC is one of the others wonder what he wants with a uniformed police constable - the attitudes and approach taken by his fellow officers are what effect him the most. Unfortunately for Sam, his new boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) appears on the surface to be the epitome of all their worst attributes.
While over the course of the first season we discover some of those appearances are deceiving, San and Gene still disagree over the methodology used by the other. Although each develops a genuine appreciation for the other, they still come, literally, to blows over their differences in opinion on how suspects and cases should be handled. For while Sam comes from an era when police work is based on the analysis of data and the careful accumulation of evidence in order to build a case against a suspect, Gene uses a combination of bluster, force, and instincts ("gut reactions") to solve a case. Still, most of the time they're able to find a middle ground which not only makes them a good team, but helps solve some difficult cases.
Playing all along in the background throughout both the first and second series is Sam's desire to return home. Periodically he's made aware that he has another life beyond 1973. Mysterious messages from doctors and family members are transmitted to him via televisions, radios, and telephones. Are these actually things being said to him while he's lying in a coma in 2006 that are slipping through to this place where his mind is active? Will they really provide the clues he needs to be able to "find his way home" and wake up from the coma? Or is it something else? Perhaps the concussion he is said to have suffered in the first episode has given him amnesia so he's forgotten his "real life" as a policeman in 1973?
I've very deliberately not mentioned details of any of the episodes, as really very little can be revealed that won't be either spoil the fun of watching the officers solve each case, or how the series works itself towards its conclusion. What's important is the journey the creators of the series have Sam take through the course of the entire series. It's not just been in the workplace where he's relegated feelings to the back burner and it's the imperfect world that he finds himself in that makes him understand what he has been repressing all along. In the end he has to make a decision as to who Sam Tyler wants to be. No mater what he decides it will come with a cost, but in the end he understands some costs are worth paying no matter what the price.
As in the first series one of the delights of these episodes is the relationship between Sam and Gene. While Sam is still continually appalled by Gene's behaviour and Gene is equally pissed off with Sam's more anal qualities about rules and regulations, their friendship - while mystifying to everybody around them - continues to grow stronger and deeper. Both Simm and Glenister deliver multi-layered performances that are some of the most believable and enjoyable that you'll see on television. Glenister does a remarkable job of portraying both the bluster and the integrity that lie beneath the surface of Gene Hunt, and making the two seemingly irreconcilable characteristics believable.
The three supporting characters Detective Constables (DC) Anne Cartwright (Liz White) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) not only continue the excellent work they had begun in the first series, the writers have made sure to give them sufficient challenges which allows them to add even more depth to their portrayals. While Anne continues to be a mixture of Sam's confessor and conscience, her increase in self-confidence as a result of her promotion to detective results in her taking a more active role in their relationship. She pushes Sam and forces him to confront aspects of his character he might not otherwise have been brave enough to do on his own. While Skelton and Carling still provide a fair bit of the comic relief -mainly through their ineptitude - the actors never let their characters become caricatures and are completely believable in their roles.
The four DVD set comes with special features that provide some great background to both how those responsible for creating the series worked out how to conclude it (Do not watch the making of documentaries on discs one and four until after you've watched the episodes as they are full of spoilers) and provide some fascinating details about the mechanics of shooting a period television piece. Unlike some of Acorn's product which are limited technologically by a show's original shooting date, Life On Mars: Series 2comes with 5.1 surround sound and wide screen pictures ideally suited to today's home entertainment equipment.
After having watched the first year of episodes one could be forgiven for having doubts about the ability of the people responsible for Life On Mars to either match what they had already accomplished or bringing the series to a successful conclusion. Doubt no more - not only do the episodes in the second season continue to match the level of excellence seen in the first year, the way they integrate the conclusion of Sam's personal story is brilliant. Life On Mars is a perfect an example of how to make use of the potential television offers for telling a story. Unlike most of what you see on the small screen its ending is as satisfying as its beginning. You may be left wanting more, but that's a darn site better than wondering what the hell its still doing on the air.
(Originally posted November 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.