I'd mostly given up on this show. At the start of "The Man Who Sold The World," I was already working out in my head how to cut ties; how, given the steadily decreasing number of comments with each new episode, that maybe it was time to let Life On Mars sink back into oblivion.
And honestly, the first ten minutes? I wasn't changing my mind. We finally get a chance to meet Sam's dad, Vic (Dean Winters), and it was underwhelming. The dialogue was particularly bad–every couple of minutes a character was pointing out the painfully obvious, which is something Mars does a lot. And the music was heavy-handed as always.
So yeah, I had my eulogy all prepared in my head. But then, as Joseph Heller would say, Something Happened.
I'm not sure if I've addressed this, as I tend to spend most of these columns bitching about tech details and Harvey Keitel's sedation meds, but my biggest problem with the series is that I've never been able to buy it as a persistent universe. I'm not saying I needed concrete proof that Sam's experience is real or hallucinatory; it's more that I need some sense that the world he's inhabiting is connected between the scenes. Episodes will have great moments, but those moments never add up to anything substantial, which is death for a long-form story. We need something that gives the central conceit enough depth for us to invest in it emotionally, give us a reason to believe that our patience will be rewarded; I'll put up with a lot of crap if I can just believe that what I'm watching is more than the sum of its parts.
"Man" went a long way towards solving that problem for me. Mars is stronger when it deals with cases that have a personal connection for Sam, and tonight's was a big one; a kidnapped baby leads to Vic's arrest, and brings Sam back in contact with his mother and his younger self. Just having the mom show up for some scenes was a step in the right direction–apart from the leads and a couple extraneous folks at the police station, we haven't had much in the way of recurring characters. Being able to build on the history Sam and Rose established earlier gave their scenes, and the central conflict of the ep, greater depth.
Vic claims he wasn't directly involved with the kidnapping, and after some pushing, fingers the villainous Pignato brothers; he says he made some bad bets, needed quick cash, and was roped into playing the unwilling henchman for the real bad guys. Sam completely buys this, and in his defense, so did I; given the show's general reluctance to get truly dark, it seemed like having Dad appear guilty but ultimately be just another victim fit in with the usual flow. Besides, it gives a great out for why Vic disappeared at Sam's fourth birthday party–he didn't abandon his family, he was just murdered by the Pignatos for squealing to the police!
That's not how things work out, though. Sam spends the day with Vic, waiting for a call about the location of the money drop, and they bond over crosswords and basketball. It's a little corny, but authentic enough that it works, and the monologues Vic gives are well-written and entertaining. (The rats one was great, only spoiled a little by the completely unnecessary underscoring.) Vic sells cleaning supplies, and the way Winters plays it, it's not hard to imagine him going door to door, charming the hell out of people just by telling them whatever comes off the top of his head.
Then it comes time for Vic to deliver the ransom, and it all goes to hell. After hearing shots fired over the wire, Sam, Gene, and the rest barge in to find bodies everywhere; Vic's bleeding from a shoulder wound and the money's gone. But hey, it's not always a bad ending–Chris finds the kidnapped baby crying upstairs. So the bad guys get the money, but the kid is okay, and Vic lived to fight another day; all in all, it could've gone worse.
Obviously something fishy is going on. Sam doesn't realize it till the parents come to get their baby and find the kid has a rocket toy on him; the exact same toy he remembers his dad trying to give his younger self not too long ago. Vic disappears; Sam tries the Tyler house, and gets yelled at by Rose for his troubles. Things are coming together fast–it's his fourth birthday, the last day he remembers ever seeing his dad, and his mother is wearing a red dress that looks a lot like the dress he keeps seeing in his dreams. Increasingly nervous, Sam asks Annie to keep an eye on the little Sam's party in the park. He arrives soon after, watching things play out from his car; the music is actually cool for once, as we get another reprise of "Life On Mars" while Sam freaks out, getting flashes of a memory that won't ever come completely clean. Then his father shows up, hugs his mom, and disappears–and Sam can't raise Annie on the walkie-talkie.
The twist here doesn't completely work; it turns out Annie, who had plans to go to a wedding later in the day, was also wearing a red dress, and Sam's memory is of his father beating and strangling Annie to death before running away. Only problem is, we're never given any reason as to why Annie would be in the park if older Sam hadn't asked her to do him the favor; nobody else on the force seems to give a damn about Vic, so it's curious that she would've gotten involved, especially if she had a date to get to. (On the plus side, they do a nice job covering their asses on little Sam having seen the attack in the "original" version.)
But I can let that slide, because the whole scene plays out beautifully. Turns out Vic is an utter, utter bastard; he ran the kidnapping, killed most of the people at the ransom delivery, and also made up the whole Pignatos business as a cover for him and his fellow goons. Sam gets righteous, delivers a speech about how much Vic screwed up his life, and then gets shot twice in the stomach. Again, it's not perfect–Sam is a little too trusting, but at least he suffers for it. Just having Vic be such an evil sonofabitch, with no believable excuses or mitigating circumstances, was exactly what the show needed to up the ante.
Things get very creepy in the last few minutes. There's a definite Twin Peaks vibe going on; Sam standing in a house in the middle of nowhere, and a voice on the phone tells him to look in the basement. I have no idea where this is going, and there's always the chance that it'll end up a let-down. But I do know that the last twenty minutes of "Man" was the best this show has ever been; more than that, it was legitimately good stuff, no qualifiers needed. January 28th seems very far away.
—About the grade: All right, so it's a soft A. But dammit, I really liked those twenty minutes.