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Life On Mars: "Things To Do In New York When You're Dead"

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About halfway into "Things To Do In New York When You're Dead," Sam and his temporary partner get nabbed by the Black Liberation Army. While they're being held captive, the man in charge does a bit of jive talk, and like nearly all the period dialogue on this show, it lands flat; but Sam likes it, and then he makes the mistake of saying he likes it, and it becomes this thing. He tells them he enjoys "freestyling," and they demand he do his own rhyme.

It's a lousy scene. The actors do their best, but the whole thing is so absurd as to be almost painful. Too often on Mars, Sam's adventures play out like bad sitcoms, full of stock characters and heavy on the laugh lines. I tried to justify this as part of the series' intentional ambiguity, but the justification doesn't work when the episodes are this annoying to watch. There's a lot of clunkiness in "Things" that can't be argued away no matter how you look at it; and initially it looked like the "freestyling" bit was going to be one of the worst offenders.

But then Sam breaks into an impromptu performance of "Ice, Ice, Baby." I laughed so hard I nearly fell off the couch.

Oh, it's still a lousy freakin' scene. I've been treating Mars with kid gloves, because I really do want to see it work, but let's be honest–so far we've got a cool set-up, a handful of excellent scenes, and a bunch of crap. It's getting worse, too. Tonight was the first night watching where I probably would've turned the channel if I wasn't doing this write-up. There are Heathcliff cartoons with more depth than this crap.


Jeez, though—"Ice, Ice, Baby"? That's brilliant. And while I'm not a huge fan of the religious angle, the ep's big twist at the end surprised me. As always, the moments, I like. It's just all the time I spend waiting for those moments that gets on my nerves.

Little Keisha Davies is dead after a long fall, and the black community of New York wants someone to blame. Angel Ramirez looks like he'll do; a Puerto Rican who did repair work on Keisa's building, he was seen with her on the roof before she tumbled. It should be a simple case of catch the bad-guy and beat him till he pukes teeth, but Angel manages to get away from the cops when someone throws a pipe bomb at him, Sam, and Ray. The city breaks into riots, DJ Brother Lovebutter is spreading the bad word, and Gene and his cronies are out for blood. It's up to Sam to get Angel before Angel gets dead; but to do that, he needs a little help from an old friend.


Last time we saw Fletcher "Clams" Bellow, he was played by Clarke Peters and he was living in 2008. The younger version is played by Ed Gathegi, but Sam doesn't have any problems recognizing him. The two partner up quickly when they realize they're the only sane cops on the case; which leads eventually to the B.L.A., the freestylin', and the big reveal that Brother Lovebutter is a woman, and that woman is Whoopi Goldberg.

Sam and Fletch convince Lovebutter to let them on the air to get a word to Angel that they want to help him; a call from Gene throws their plans out of whack, but they do get Angel on the line long enough to realize he's at Port Authority. Everybody converges on the bus station, where they see the jacket Angel was wearing earlier, and manage to nab his pregnant girlfriend, Marta. Back at the station-house, Fletcher sweet-talks Marta into giving up where Angel's headed: the candelight vigil being held for Keisha that very night.


It winds up with Sam, Fletcher, Ray, Gene, and Angel on the roof, guns drawn. Sam holds Gene off long enough for Angel to finally tell his side of the story: no one pushed Keisha. She fell while she was chasing a butterfly she caught at the park. The witnesses just saw Angel trying to save her.

As far as mystery resolutions go, that's maybe a step up from "it's all in my head!" Maybe. "Things" tried to deal with racial politics, religion, and kid killing in forty minutes, and it managed to muck up all three with its usual gusto. All this sturm und drang and the kid just ran off the stupid roof? She was nine, for crying out loud. Maybe they should go arrest the damn butterfly.


There's a minor twist here, with Gene shooting his gun and us getting the fake-out that he killed Angel. Of course he didn't, it's all a big con to get the idiot away from danger so he and his pregnant girlfriend can go live someplace with less stupid children. Again we get the religious stuff thrown at us; Angel says he prayed to God for help, and God sent Sam, and so Sam should start praying, because really, that's what God is, a Santa Claus without the vacation time.

We find out in 'Things" that Sam lost his faith because after his father left, Lil Sammy prayed every night to see Dad again, and God never came through. It's an indifferent anecdote, it gets dragged out during a bizarre conversation, and the constant references to "miracles" and the irony of Angel's name–well, it's all done with that delicate touch we've come to know and love here on the red planet. Themes and subtext can make a good story a richer one, but this is like writing an essay at 3 a.m. and then using a thesaurus to make it sound smarter. The meaning doesn't change, but it takes forever to read the damn thing.


Still… that funeral scene was great. Seeing old-Bellow in the coffin surprised me, and I liked how the Magical Hobo seemed to give Sam a lot of information about his current state without confirming anything one way or the other. If I'm going to be honest, much as I did like last week, I don't expect Mars to get significantly better any time soon; and if it gets worse, Magical Hobo help us. The mind-screw gags are, and I suspect always will be, very cool, so I'll keep waiting for those. I just wish I didn't have to put up with so much junk to get them.

Grade: C+

Stray Observations:

Wire-Watch continues: in addition to the brief cameo by Clarke Peters, we had Chris Bauer as Father Tim, and Chad Coleman as the head B.L.A. guy.


—Turn. Off. The Freakin'. Music. The rooftop confrontation would've been a thousand times better if somebody hadn't been jamming on a synthesizer the whole time. (We could've also lost the ugly flashback.)

—I think I need to watch Coffy again, just to get the taste of all that phony out.


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