Liz Tells Frank What Happened In the U.S. “Life on Mars” Finale

Dear Frank,

Oh, the tragedy of the great British TV series, pure and original and beautifully executed — and then adapted into something completely different and strange for American consumption. Well, I say it’s a tragedy, and it is — but sometimes it leads to hilarity.

Frank, today I am not going to tell you about the very very good BBC drama Life on Mars (or its 80s-set sequel, Ashes to Ashes), in which a cerebral police detective from the 21st century finds himself inexplicably thrust backwards in time, and is forced to deal with the rough-and-tumble nature of police work in the 1970s (as well as the fashion and lack of iPhones). You should watch it yourself if you get a chance, because if you do you will get to meet Gene Hunt, the chief detective of Sam’s new 1970s precinct, one of modern television’s great alpha male characters and a perennial delight.

Instead, Frank, we’re talking about the American remake of the show, for a very specific reason. See, the central mystery of the British series is the question of what has really happened to Detective Sam Tyler — per the opening credits, is he in a coma, going crazy or traveling through time? The series slowly but confidently reveals the truth over two seasons, and then Ashes to Ashes continues things by asking the question of who Gene Hunt really is, and that takes THREE seasons, but you better believe it was a deeply satisfying conclusion.

Meanwhile, what happened with the American Life on Mars was as follows: Show premieres, fails to really grab an audience despite starring Harvey Keitel and Christopher from The Sopranos, slowly starts to circle the drain. However, ABC did a relatively decent thing, and gave the showrunners a big heads-up that there would be no season two, which gave them permission to end the story in season one.

That alone would be interesting, but several months ago, I got accidentally spoiled for what that ending entailed and HOLY SHIT, FRANK, IT WAS THE CRAZIEST SHIT I EVER HEARD. So when the US Life on Mars landed on Netflix a few weeks ago, I knew that I would never actually watch the series — but I would definitely watch the finale, because like I said, this shit is CRAZY.

And that’s what I’m going to do right now. This is, for the record, the only episode of the show I have ever watched. But hopefully I’ll catch on quick to whatever I’ve missed. Especially since ALL THE NAMES OF THE CHARACTERS ARE THE SAME UGH.

We open on Sam Tyler waking up. In 2009 times in his 2009 apartment! (It’s a dream.) He’s trying to figure out which of his many Apple products is playing some annoying song I don’t recognize but apparently was from the year 2009 — and then there’s a little kid in the apartment dancing to the song, and it’s definitely a dream sequence, because now Sam’s dad (I’m guessing) (and who is also played by Dean Winters!) is sitting there and cheering the dancing “Sammy” on, and while I’ve really gotten sick of dream sequences in shows this is pretty true to the British series–

Sam wakes up, and there’s a girl in his bed named Wendy who snuck into his bed because there were mice in her (presumably) nearby apartment. And now they’re talking about animal poop. CHEMISTRY! I guess she knows about him being from the future, and says that maybe his dream is a sign that he’s heading back to the future soon? CREDITS!

A note about Jason O’Mara, who is playing Sam Tyler in today’s musicale. He makes an excellent strapping leading man (watch him fight dinosaurs in Fox’s Terra Nova this fall!), but is largely the reason I never gave the show a chance. The thing that works about the original British series, you see, is that star John Simm is not a physically intimidating guy, but is instead a smart, analytical fellow, which means that when dropped into the raw masculinity of the era, he doesn’t fit in. Jason O’Mara, meanwhile, makes this face a lot.

Whuuuuuu?

Anyways, Sam comes into the office, where Christopher from The Sopranos, one of his fellow detectives, is watching Nixon give his “I am not a crook” address and being grouchy because Republican.

Not a good look for our boy Christopher.

Sam ignores the opportunity to make too many “I know about the future” jokes to answer the phone — and it’s a mysterious caller from the future! The caller tells Sam that if he wants to go home, he’ll have to do three things, first being save himself. At that exact moment, a lady rushes in saying that little Sammy has been kidnapped by his father! No points for you for guessing the lady is Sam’s period-aged mother! Sam promises to find his toddler self, and Mom asks him to give Sammy his favorite toy space shuttle when he does. (No spoilers, but THAT IS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT LATER.)

Sam and Harvey Keitel (I’d call him Gene Hunt, except that only Philip Glenister is Gene Hunt, and besides Harvey Keitel is pretty much just being Harvey Keitel) have a nice scene in the car before going to raid Sam’s dad’s house. It goes really badly — Harvey gets ambushed and handcuffed, and Sam gets knocked out by his own father and abducted for no good reason.

"Hey dummy." I liked Dean Winters a lot more on "30 Rock."

The other cops interrogate Sam’s mom, and the scene is largely pointless except that we learn Sam has told his mother that his name is Detective Luke Skywalker, which actually gets a laugh out of me but also is just stupid, because apparently this is like the third time this squad of cops has come across the 70s-era Tyler family and not once have they noticed Sam’s mom calling Adult Sam a completely different name? Sure, show. You go with that.

Oh my god there’s a scene where Sam’s mom is talking to Annie the lady cop who Sam is supposedly in love with I’m guessing (and who has largely been useless so far) and it’s all “when I see my son as an adult he’s like Detective Skywalker.” Way to play it subtle, show.

The abducted Sam wakes up alone, and escapes the apartment he’s been left in only to experience a weird flash of weirdness — an annoying pulse noise and visions of small black girls and Mars rovers and then flash frames from what I presume is the entire series to date? This is the show attempting to mimic the surreal elements of the British series, with limited success. When he snaps out of it, he finds a phone booth and tries to call the home station — the call is interrupted, though, by his mysterious caller friend, who tells him to duck. Gunfight! Boring gunfight.

We then get close to having some 70s flare (which was part of what made the original so goddamn charming) with a quick moment of Sam walking down a dock with a shotgun to some jammin’ electric guitar. It’s then undercut by this show’s regular undercurrent of boringness when Sam easily finds the boat that little Sammy and Dad are hiding out in. Fistfight between father and son! Dad doesn’t kill Sam, because Sam tells him that he’s his son — but then Harvey Keitel shoots him just in the nick of time.

Frank, in case you’re wondering how Harvey Keitel just showed up in the nick of time, there’s stuff I’m not putting in this because it’s just too lame to mention. It’s not even lame in an interesting way, just in that mediocre network drama sort of way.

Anyways, the squad saves Sam, they promote Annie to a real detective because she was the one to figure out that Sam’s dad had fled to Hyde (by the way, she did that by TALKING TO SAM’S MOM THAT IS THE CLOSEST THIS EPISODE GETS TO DETECTIVE WORK) and also WHY IS HARVEY KEITEL WEARING WHITE FUCKING LEATHER LOAFERS? I don’t want to get all “Gene Hunt would never wear white leather loafers” here but “GENE HUNT WOULD NEVER WEAR WHITE FUCKING LOAFERS.”

I MEAN, SERIOUSLY, WHAT THE FUCK?

Deep breaths.

The gang gets drunk in the office and Christopher from The Sopranos goes on a rant about how “we all live on a rock.” That is the entire scene. And then there is another scene in Sam’s apartment where that Wendy girl says she’s going to move to Spain with David Bowie (sure) and then Sam’s TV turns on with a vision of Sam on New Year’s Eve 2010, reading a book to an old lady with white hair, and you think the old lady is Sam’s mom but TWIST it’s Annie! The TV turns off and Wendy tells him to go to Annie. “She’s the one!” Okay.

Sam does so! And talks like a robot about how the whole reason he was sent back in time was to make out with her. Okay. At this point I’m just nodding along. Resistence = spent. They make out. Yay. I guess.

This is the first time they've talked all episode.

Sam goes back to the office after making out with Annie (okay) and gets another mysterious phone call telling that he has just one thing left to do before going home. But he’s like, screw it! I like 1973! And he hangs up and hugs Harvey Keitel and the picture freezes, like the file’s been corrupted–

Frank, I think it’s best now if you stop reading, go grab a bottle of straight liquor, and do a shot of alcohol. Maybe a second shot after that. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back? Cool.

The picture comes back, and we see a space rover roaming a surface — but that surface is SAM’S FACE. And we’re in a goddamn space ship.

I took a lot of screencaps of this, Frank, because I was pretty sure you wouldn't believe me. So here is a picture of Sam in a space ship.

That’s right — THE “SQUAD” IS ON AN ACTUAL FUCKING MISSION TO MARS, waking up on the date March 2, 2035 FOR THEIR FINAL APPROACH.

See? There's Mars. They're LOOKING FOR LIFE ON IT.

Sam’s squad mates are on board, Annie is their commander (which was hinted at earlier during one of the lame scenes I didn’t want to fully recap), Wendy is the computer and Sam apparently spent his time in cryo-sleep using a neuro-stim to keep his mind engaged or whatever.

Apparently in the future, Annie is a brunette. Also, that earlier scene with Sam reading to future old lady Annie is now complete and utter bullshit.

“Why would you use the neuro-stim to be a cop in 2008?” Christopher from The Sopranos asks him.

Things have improved for our boy Christopher here, hair-wise.

“I don’t know, but something went wrong and I ended up in 1973, but with all my 2008 memories!” Sam replies. What went wrong was that they went through a meteor storm. NOT MAKING ANY OF THIS UP.

OH, AND THEY ARE LOOKING FOR GENETIC MATERIAL ON MARS. THEY ARE ON A “GENE HUNT.”

Oh, and that pun is brought to you courtesy of the fact that Harvey Keitel is not named Gene Hunt, he’s named Major Tom. And he’s Sam’s dad! Okay. Sure. He takes the first step out on Mars, in those fucking WHITE LEATHER SHOES, while ELTON JOHN plays. And end of series.

FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU.

I mean, points for the most balls-out crazy fucking direction they could have taken the show. Coma? Time travel? Insanity? NO, MISSION TO MARS IN THE YEAR 2035. Sometimes, it is possible to admire a show’s cajones while also wishing to kick them back up into the show’s ribcage.

In short, Frank, I have no words. Except for the many many words above. And also the following promise — the REAL Life on Mars? Does not end like that.

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on June 30, 2011, in All the Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Windy. Not Wendy. Her name is Windy. Seriously.

  2. if you watch the whole series there are little things that point to the ending, it doesn’t seem like they slapped it together. Like when he would hear bits from the “present” he would also see that rover, and the little sam wants to be an astronaut thing is carried through.

    I watched the whole series back to back a couple years ago and it inspired me to watch life on mars and ashes to ashes religiously. So that’s something.

    • Okay, I’m kind of charmed by the idea that the writers decided from the beginning that they were on a mission to Mars. And it’s awesome that the US version got you to watch the UK versions! Thanks for commenting.

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