Life on Mars: The Complete Series

Actors: Jason O'Mara, Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Murphy
Format: Box set, Color, Dolby, DVD, NTSC, Widescreen
Language: English
Region: 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Number of discs: 4
Studio: ABC Studios
DVD Release Date: September 29, 2009

Bonus features:

  • To Mars and Back - Viewers journey to "Mars" with Sam Tyler the cast and producers to see where the "Mars" concept originated and if viewers can figure out where it's headed.
  • Sunrise to Sunset with Jason O'Mara - An exhilarating and exhausting day experiencing
  • Jason O'Mara's Life on Mars.
  • Flashback: Lee Majors Goes to Mars - Lee Majors steps back in the past on the Life on mars set with cast and crew.
  • Spaced Out: Bloopers from the Set
  • Deleted Scenes



Gimmick-based shows are all the rage these days, with the success of Lost launching a plethora of high-concept imitations. The problem is that without more thought invested into traditional components (such as character and story), the big hook tends to fall apart. The American remake of Life on Mars avoids that trap, but just barely and thanks largely to a singularly inspired piece of casting. The rest of it relies too heavily on the "hey neat-o" factor to escape also-ran status.

Fans of the British original on which this series is based understand the set-up, and the new version wastes no time diving in. In pursuit of a serial killer in 2008, NYPD Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973, sporting period-appropriate clothing and a tailor-made job at his old precinct. But times have changed (or rather, changed back) and present-day norms no longer apply in the sun-dappled days of Watergate and Vietnam. Sam must adjust to a world where police brutality is SOP, a woman's place is still in the kitchen, and paperwork means using actual paper. The precinct also has a female cop (Gretchen Mol) - fighting for a spot in the boys' club and giving Sam a reason to champion women's lib - while the remaining detectives treat him with a combination of bafflement and condescension. In between hunting down 1973's most wanted, he searches desperately for the answers to what happened to him, hoping they'll lead him back to his old life.

The science fiction elements ostensibly add a new twist to the old cop show clichés, with vanishing robots and mysterious messages on the TV set reminding Sam that he doesn't belong here. At their best, they lend an admirable sense of whimsy to the proceedings, coloring life-on-the-street verité with tongue-in-cheek humor. O'Mara makes for an appealing presence, though his character is defined more by his era than any legitimate personality of his own. The cases he pursues have a certain cleverness to them, while his overarching dilemma remains just intriguing enough to remind us that it exists.

Too often, however, Life on Mars takes the easy way out, reducing its hero to periodic rants about how much better things are in the future and making glib comparisons between various bits of fashion, technology and overall zeitgeist. He lectures cheerfully corrupt detectives about suspects' rights, marvels at the existence of vinyl records, and takes advice from his hippy next-door neighbor (Tanya Fischer) about finding his way home. The results hold life, but never quite come together, their observations just a tad too forced for comfort. The show runners provide a big curve ball by introducing Sam to his younger self (Caleb Wallace) - along with his corrupt father (Dean Winters) and enabling mother (Jennifer Ferrin) - but even that fails to generate any appreciable enthusiasm. So too does the season / series finale provide an answer to his dilemma more angering than enlightening: a "what were they thinking" head slapper which renders the entire series utterly irrelevant.

The saving grace comes in the presence of Harvey Keitel as Tyler's gruff lieutenant. He can play such roles in his sleep, and the twinkle-eyed fun he brings to the proceedings strikes an ideal balance of tough-guy machismo and knowing self-mockery. If it weren't for him, Life on Mars would be utterly disposable. He elevates it from mundane trickery to something worth watching, if only casually. Which isn't to say the show is bad, only that enough better shows exist to drop it off your must-see list. The British version is superior by all accounts, which may add further strike marks against this incarnation. Certainly, Life on Mars makes a decent break from the routine, but it can't capitalize on its unique properties well enough to stand above the pack.

THE DISC: 17 episodes are on 4 discs - constituting the show's only season - along with several short documentaries and deleted scenes. It's standard boiler-plate material with a minimum of extras thrown in to keep serious fans happy.

WORTH IT? Too many better options exist to make it a must-own, though fans of the original may enjoy it just to compare how American sensibilities differ from those of the British. The self-contained nature of the show has something to recommend it as well, especially for those tired of watching good television go bad by not pulling the plug at the right time.

RECOMMENDATION: A passable stand-by, but if you didn't catch it the first time around, you're not missing anything earth-shattering.

- Rob Vaux



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