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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iLife On Mars/i: Episodes 2.1  2.2
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Illustration for article titled iLife On Mars/i: Episodes 2.1  2.2

When last we left Manchester policeman Sam Tyler (played by John Simm), he was still stuck in 1973, after allowing his father to elude arrest, thereby keeping the timeline more or less intact, and ensuring that he'd remain in a coma in the present day (or unstuck in time, depending on whether you think the story is taking place in DCI Tyler's head of if he's actually a time traveler). And if you've never seen Life On Mars before, well…sorry, I'm sure I just lost you. But don't be too intimidated. Even though this is the kind of show that gains in resonance and meaning the more you watch, part of what makes it work is that it's still essentially a cop show, with a new case and a new chase every hour.

In fact, the main problem with the first episode of series two is that for the most part it's a fairly routine policier, and doesn't really proceed naturally from the messy, emotionally complex place where series one ended. It's more about re-establishing the premise: that Sam was involved in a car accident in 2006, and when he woke up it was 1973, and he'd been assigned to a police force far cruder in its methods than the one he left behind in the present. Right of the bat in episode 2.1, Sam's back to reminding his thuggish boss Gene Hunt (played by Philip Glenister) that everything has to be done "by the book, guv," and Hunt's back to grumbling about the wussification of police work.

The second series' first installment does have a case related to Sam's condition, though it's handled a little clumsily. A petty crimelord is involved in a murder, and though Sam can't find any evidence to put him away, he's convinced that this small-timer is the guy, because he remembers that in 2006, this dude is not so small time. Sam is also convinced that the suspect is in his hospital room in the present, tampering with his life support, and that he has to put him in jail in 1973 in order to save his life in 2006.

Frankly, the metaphysics of it all are a little confusing, and anyway Life On Mars is rarely at its strongest when Sam is trying to figure out the right combination of moves to get him out of this time warp. What's more compelling is Sam's dilemma: Should he plant evidence on the suspect in order to keep from committing crimes in the future, and if he does, how does that make him any different from the way his colleagues behaved when he first met them in series one (when they'd beat a confession out of a local nogoodnik whether he was guilty or not, just to get him off the streets)?

The team takes Sam's premonitions way too much in stride, given that they still don't know anything about his temporal displacement (with the exception of WPC Annie Cartwright, played by Liz White, and well-used this episode). But they and the story rally at the end, with the application of some modern policework and a last-second phone call that broadens the series' mythology, indicating that Sam is being watched from beyond, and that he has a job to do.

The second episode barely deals with this revelation until another last-second call, which fails to advance the master-plot a single iota. Instead, the major time-travel business in 2.2 has to do with Sam's mentor Glenn Fletcher, whom he learns through one of his periodic flashes of clarity has died in the present, on the same day that he joins the Manchester force in the past. Sam's "stick it out because you will be a hero someday" speechifying drags the episode down some, in part because its unnecessary–it's already obvious what this guy means to Sam–and in part because it continues Sam's strange new indifference to how he's perceived. ("After all we've been through together," he yells at Glenn, improbably forgetting that the young Glenn has no idea what they've been through together.)

But the introduction of Glenn works inasmuch as it mirrors the episode's case, which involves Gene's mentor, Superintendent Harry Wolf, and his possible masterminding of the kidnapping of a notorious safecracker and sheep-rapist. Gene protects his old boss for as long as he can, but when the evidence becomes irrefutable, he does what's necessary.

In the end, Life On Mars 2.2. edges 2.1 primarily because it's more Gene-heavy, which is always a good thing. Sam may be the show's hero, but so far in series two he's been a bit of a drip. A lot of the perverse wish-fulfillment that Life On Mars provides derives from jumping back to the days when powerful men could get things done just through sheer will and intimidation, and in that sense, Gene is the reason for the season, so to speak.

It's hard to pick the best Gene Hunt line of the night. It may be the sarcastic, "The criminal element sometimes indulge in practices called pretending and lying." Or perhaps the dismissive, "If I was as worried as you, I'd never fart for fear of shitting myself." But in honor of the return of one of my favorite shows–a tentative return, but a return nonetheless–I'll go with an old standby.

"Don't move, you're surrounded by armed bastards!"

Grade: B/B+

Stray observations:

-When Sam instructs his fellow coppers to lay down some spiked chains to stop a speeding car, they're impressed with his ingenuity, leading him to say,

"I didn't invent it. Well, actually I suppose I just did."

-Heading to the prisoner exchange in episode two, one of Sam's colleagues refers to their quarry as, "Like David Jannsen in The Fugitive," to which Sam says, "You mean Harrison Ford."

-It looks like series two is going to deal more directly with the social changes in law enforcement, by adding women and "coloreds" to the force. On Annie's first day as a WDC, her desk is strewn with topless calendars. On Glenn's first day, one of his new colleagues asks, "You here to do the spadework?"

-The last I heard, the US version of this show–helmed by David E. Kelley, which seems like an odd fit to me–made it through the last pilot season without getting picked up, but is still considered to be "in development" for the next pilot season, if there is one. Frankly, I don't think we need an American Life On Mars, especially since a lot of the emotional/philosophical content of the BBC show has been picked up by NBC's Journeyman, which has become less silly and more compelling as its season has worn on. With only two more episodes of Journeyman left–perhaps forever–I'm prepared to call it one of the highlights of the 2007 TV season. I shall miss it when it's gone.

-This is a one-shot Life On Mars review–or two-shot, since it's two episodes–but if this second series plays out as well as the first did, I'd like to return and write about the finale. So Life On Mars fans, make some noise. That'll make it easier to get approval for another post, later on.

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