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We get to see Annie in bondage gear this week. And Gina Gershon got a paycheck. Those are the nicest things I can think of to say about "Coffee, Tea, or Annie," yet another in a long line of mildly amusing but ultimately tedious Life On Mars episodes. Sam, who should be the driving force behind the series, has retreated further into the background, and the few moments of trippiness he sees are as conventional and flat as everything around them. Gene is tired and grumbly, Ray is an ass, Chris is naive. But hey, Annie whipping a dude, huh? That's not half bad. (Although if I really wanted to see Gretchen Mol doing a fetish routine, I'd just rent The Notorious Bettie Page.)

On-going mystery series have always struggled how best to handle the problem of the weekly guest star. You make them the victim of the crime, generally the crime is murder, so they aren't going to get much screen time. You make them a witness, they get to actually chat with the heroes, but they aren't all that important to the story. Making them the killer, well, that's a decent fix; only problem is, any viewer with have an ounce of gray matter between the ears is going to suspect that the most prominent, non-recurring actor in any given story is the most likely suspect. "Coffee" dodges these problems in a unique way—sure, Gershon is the killer, and it's obvious as soon as she's introduced, but that's not because of the actress's fame. Rita could've been played by Mr. Cellophane and she still would've screamed "JEALOUS WIFE KILLING HER HUSBAND'S LOVERS" to anyone who'd listen.

So the mystery was a wash. How about the rest? The big hook this week is that stewardesses are turning up dead, and the latest corpse, Valerie Palmer, looks exactly like a brunette Annie. In order to solve the case, Annie volunteers to put on a wig and go undercover into Valerie's life; this includes moving back into her apartment (with her two roommates), and taking up her job flying the friendly skies. Ideally, this should give our heroes a chance to poke into Palmer's background, and flush out a murderer presumably shocked to see his handiwork all vertical and so such.

Look, I get this is a "is it a dream?" kind of show. I'm willing to cut some slack; I have, after all, watched and enjoyed an on-going television series that treats time travel and murderous cyborgs like Full House treated hugs. But Mars has been moving away from its trippier elements of late, and from a common sense perspective alone, the stuff that goes on in "Coffee" simply will not stand. The idea that Annie could just sneak into Valerie's apartment, and fool her roommates is a stretch, even if they weren't close. That nobody would actually tell the roommates this was happening seems somewhat illegal; the roommates haven't been charged with a crime, they're never considered suspects, but now they have a stranger in their home, wired for sound and pretending to be someone she's not. Is this really standard operating procedure? Sam's only problem is that Annie is putting herself in danger; surely he should see some sort of ethical issue here. It's not like Valerie was a gangster's moll.

It gets dumber. Annie finds a date book in Valerie's room, mentioning a flight, a seat number, and an amount of money. Gene sends Sam and Ray in undercover on that flight, to watch as Annie/Valerie deals with Lincoln Hart (Mark Linn-Baker, whose made a minor career since Perfect Strangers out of playing really, really creepy guys). Sam pretends to be a dead-heading pilot, Ray's a passenger, and get this—the plane takes off. With a suspect in a potential murder suspect on board, who could easily freak out at seeing Annie/Valerie, and do any one of the thousand different things it's possible to do on a flying plane that'd just ruin everybody's day.

The approach here is just baffling; why bother with the heavy-duty undercover? Lincoln's the target—sure, we know he's not the killer (because we deduced it), but he's still the most likely suspect. Why not just grab him off the plane for questioning? This isn't drug trafficking. You don't need to catch him in the act of attempted murder to, y'know, catch him. Doing it this way is less about logical story developments and more about getting in another wacky undercover sequence. Eventually Lincoln makes a move on Annie/Valerie, and Sam and Ray take him down. But it was all for naught; sure, Lincoln is a bit of a perv, buying stews' used panties for, ahem, personal use, but he's not a murderer. It's on to the next suspect, a lecherous pilot named Ronald with an obvious shine for our girl. And because it's a show about the seventies, and because it's this show about the seventies, that means we get Sam and Annie going to a key party.

I was surprised by the scene with Annie whipping Ronald, and I was surprised that the show actually thought having Sam, pretending to be "Tom Cruise," list Cruise movie titles in conversation would be funny. (Spoiler: it was not.) But from the second Ronald's wife Rita shows up on the scene—which was actually fifteen minutes before the party—everything was basically over. Mars should be a good to excellent procedural with some cool, mind-melt trappings, but the trappings are largely rote by now, and the procedural is about on the level of a slow night in CSI land. The idea that Annie used the case to try and "find" herself was an unusual touch, and it's nice to see her standing up for herself, but it's not enough. Besides, isn't Sam supposed to be our hero? What the hell ever happened to him?

Grade: C+

Stray Observations:

  • Credit where it's due: the use of "Fakin' It" by Simon and Garfunkel while Annie is prepping for her undercover work was nifty.
  • Chris goes on a date. Learns that women are people too. Who knew?