Cop drama ‘Mars’ puts spin on reality

Times Staff Writer

Cop show, fantasy, mystery, comedy, romance, puzzle -- there are a lot of ways to approach “Life on Mars,” which begins its second and final season tonight on BBC America, and they all pay off.

Season 1 began thus: Hit by a car in 2006, Manchester, England, police detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) awakens in 1973 (seemingly), wearing period clothes and still a detective, to the strains of the titular David Bowie song. (Key line, perhaps coincidental: “Take a look at the lawman / Beating up the wrong guy.”)

“Am I mad, in a coma or back in time?” Sam asks each week over the opening credits, and while the series pretends that this is a question that needs to be settled, the practical answer is that he’s both in a coma and in 1973, which is at once in his head and independent of it. (What he is not is crazy, though the show raises the possibility now and again.) “Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?” Master Zhuang famously wondered. On the screen, you’re whatever the camera shows, all realities being equal there, being equally invented. If anything, the show cheats in favor of the possibly imaginary people of 1973; they get to be warm and whole, while the citizens of Sam’s former present, and present future, are remote -- blips of static from the 21st century.

As the second season opens, Sam is dimly conscious of his present comatose self; someone is trying to kill him there. (It’s Marc Warren, from “Hustle,” where the “Life on Mars” creators previously labored.) Later in the year, he’ll be given an accidental overdose of medication in 2006 (or perhaps it’s 2007), which will make him speedy in 1973. Conversely, what he does in the past, or in his head, can affect his present-day health.


It’s the intersection and interaction of these worlds, expressed as echoes, resonances and puns, that undergird the show, which on another level plays as cheeky homage to cop shows of the ‘70s. “Starsky and Hutch have a lot to answer for,” Sam tells his boss, the cheerfully profane Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, played with great hulking gusto by Philip Glenister, after a bit of unnecessarily fancy driving. (“Who?” Hunt rightly answers, “Starsky & Hutch” then being two years in the future.)

The series is rife with the sort of clues and puzzles that make “Lost” fun (when it’s good), but “Life on Mars” has a social-satirical component as well, offering a look back at history -- richer, of course, for the British audience -- at once critical and nostalgic. (This season will see episodes involving the IRA, wife-swapping and the introduction of heroin into Manchester; old-school racism, sexism and homophobia are constant themes.) It’s a show about how far we’ve come and what we lost on the way, a kind of pre-forensic, anti-procedural police drama in which crimes are solved by intuition and inspiration. As partners in crime-solving, Tyler and Hunt are constitutional adversaries -- head versus gut, better future versus golden past -- and so when they sync up, it’s exciting in a Saturday-matinee kind of way.

Simm, who played Joy Division guitarist/New Order singer Bernard Sumner in “24-Hour Party People” and Raskolnikov in a BBC production of “Crime & Punishment,” has a way with psychic pain, but he’s also good at the sudden moment of happiness. And this season is very much about accommodation and acceptance, not least as regards Sam’s 1973 tentative love-interest, Annie (Liz White, softly staunch). She gets made a detective constable, to work alongside Ray (Dean Andrews), who doesn’t like Sam at all, and Chris (Marshall Lancaster), a Ringo-esque puppy who does.

Eight more episodes to go, driving toward a satisfying conclusion I will not share. (Sixteen episodes seems just right.) But some of these characters will be back: In “Ashes to Ashes,” a spinoff set in 1981, Hunt will get a new, female partner from the 21st century, and there’ll be a new era of old clothes to wear and old songs to play on the soundtrack -- a development that would seem to speak for the actual “reality” of the world to which Sam Tyler travels, not that it matters. It’s all made up.


‘Life on Mars’

Where: BBC America


When: 8 to 10 ET/PT tonight; 9 p.m. regular time

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)