Life On Mars: The Complete Series
R1 - America - Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan C. Stevenson (3rd November 2009).
The Show

When the promos started showing up on ABC for their take on “Life on Mars,” originally a 2-series BBC production that ran from 2006 to 2007, all I could do was roll my eyes. I was bombarded with successive visions of NBC’s failed “Coupling” (2003) remake, the atrociously awful “Worst Week of My Life” (2006-Present) redo, which was retitled to the simpler and more succinct “Worst Week” (2008) for American audiences, and the non-starter that was the aborted “Spaced” 1999-2001) adaptation, that was, scarily, coming from the mind of the infamous McG (thank you, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, et al for not letting that abomination hit the airwaves). So, to say that my expectations for “Life on Mars” were low goes without saying.

Imagine my surprise then, as I watched the pilot and was met with a fairly decent program. Admittedly, I didn’t keep up with the show past a few episodes, but that’s not because it wasn’t good. Rather, it was because, as they say, time is precious, and with so many other shows that I had to watch “in the now,” I figured this would be a good series for the DVD player during the inevitable mid-season break this year. Lucky me, it just so happens that, as my review copy of “Life on Mars – The Complete Series” arrived on my doorstep, a few of my favorite regular programs just went on hiatus, due to FOX and their commitment to baseball.

“Life on Mars” is much more inline with “The Office” remake (2005-Present), than those other shows I mentioned above. It’s well done, with a strong cast, and is intriguingly written. In short, I’m fairly happy with what I’ve been watching over the past week. This American series is, perhaps, not as good as the British one it is based off of, but it’s nearly as good. I’m also happy to report that this remake is not a carbon copy of the original either, which is nice.

For those not familiar with the American show, or, for that matter, the BBC original, the basic premise behind the series can be summed up with the tagline on the bottom of the front cover to the DVD: “A modern cop in a 1973 world.” Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), the modern cop (from 2008), is hit by a car while crossing the street, only to wake up in 1973. He’s still Sam Tyler, a detective from the 125th precinct. He’s still in New York. And he still has all of his memories from his “past.” Under the guise that he’s a new transfer from upstate, Tyler takes to the streets of New York City, bringing his new-age tactics to a world policed by tough guys and near criminals. With the help of his fellow detectives, a muse-like hippyish next-door-neighbor, and a kind policewoman named Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol), affectionately referred to as “No Nuts Norris” by her chauvinistic colleagues, Tyler seeks the truth behind how and why he’s in the 1970's. Is he in a coma in 2008, and this is his purgatory? Is 1973 the reality, and his visions of 2008 a paranoid delusion? Is he on a bad drug trip? Is he just plain crazy? Or, possibly, is he on another planet? Eventually, the end of the show will reveal all, but that doesn’t mean said reveal is satisfying (see below).

No, what made this series enjoyable for me was not the investigation into Sam’s place in time, but rather what he did while in, and how he experienced, 1973. Interestingly, the heightened “reality” in which the show exists is not really a true historical depiction of the time period; rather, it’s closer to what a person who was very, very young (Sam was 4) in ’73 would imagine the time to be like, based on knowledge from film and television shows of the era. Also intriguing is the “time travel” aspect of the series. In an inspired twist, unlike most other entries into the genre, Sam is free to interact with those from his past without consequence, even talking and interacting with his younger self.

O’Mara gives a convincing, satisfying performance as Sam. The supporting cast is even better. Michael Imperioli, as Detective Ray Carling, is particularly entertaining; his character, a chauvinistic, bigoted and “dirty” cop (who readily takes bribes) is a perfect foil to O’Mara’s clean-cut, modern man. Harvey Keitel, as Lieutenant Gene Hunt, is great. A departure from the younger character Hunt is in the BBC version, Keitel brings a fatherly aspect to the role and, well, it’s freakin’ Harvey Keitel. What’s not to like? The only one I have any qualms with is Mol, and her take on the Annie Norris character. She’s too sweet; too bubbly. She’s just not the right fit. In my opinion, Mol would have better slid into the role of Windy, Sam’s neighbor and “spiritual guide.”

With production values that rival many feature films, competent direction and writing and one of the best soundtracks to ever be heard in a TV program, there is a lot to like about “Life on Mars.” Whether it’s a new twist to the storyline, the unique intermixing of sci-fi, police procedural and drama into one product, the (frankly) nice looking visual style, or that expertly crafted sequence set to some great music, the series delivers.

The series starts off strong, damn strong actually, and continues on in that fashion for a majority of it’s run. “Life on Mars” may not have been perfect, but, until the final minutes of episode 17, I was thoroughly entertained and enjoyed almost every scene. Up until those final minutes, this was a top shelf series. But, that was until those final minutes (see my thoughts discussed in spoilers below).

WARNING: from here on out this review contains numerous spoilers. Proceed with caution. Of note, I recommend not reading the portion below as it ruins the series, but continue if you must. I need to discuss the finale for my own sanity, hence the existence of the following paragraphs. Also, a quick suggestion: if you do watch this series (and I don’t hesitate to recommend it), and then make it to the final episodes, during the finale, hit the “stop” button on your remote when the DVD counter reads 36 minutes 59 seconds. Leave off there and you will be satisfied with an ambiguous, not-entirely-satisfying-but-still-good, ending. Continue past that point and the series becomes, in my opinion, worthless.

I ask you, dear reader, can the ending of show retroactively ruin the entirety of a program? In my opinion, the answer would be yes. Very rarely, a show can be made irrelevant, downright worthless by its finale minutes. This is even more true in the case of “Life on Mars,” which in pure “Dallas” (1978-1991) fashion purposes to us, the viewers who have stuck with these characters for 17 episodes, that the characters, actions of said characters and in fact the entire reality in which these characters exist, is, if fact, not real. 1973 wasn’t real. 2008 wasn’t real. No, it was all a dream of Sam Tyler, the astronaut, on a mission to the planet Mars in 2035. Yes. You read that right. I’m not making it up. Astronaut. 2035. A DREAM! What the hell?

Okay, perhaps the ending is not entirely dissatisfying; it’s a bit better than the non-ending it could have been. But, at the same time, the realization that the people you have come to care for (as much as one can care for a fictional character anyway) were just parts of a computer assisted dream, feels like a cheat. I’m far happier with the ending of the original British version, where Sam wakes from his coma only to find out that everyone he cares for is either dead or has moved on; the final moments of the original, where Sam takes his own life, only to wake up back in 1973 is, in my opinion, a better conclusion. Not as cut and dry as the “it was all a dream approach” but, still better in my eyes.

All 17 episodes from the first and only season of “Life on Mars” are included in this 4-DVD set. Episodes appear in their original broadcast order:

- "Out Here in the Fields" (43:08)
- "The Real Adventures of the Unreal Sam Tyler" (42:00)
- "My Maharishi Is Bigger Than Your Maharishi" (43:11)
- "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?" (43:08)
- "Things to Do in New York When You Think You're Dead" (42:42)
- "Tuesday's Dead" (43:06)
- "The Man Who Sold the World" (43:08)
- "The Dark Side of the Mook" (42:28)
- "Take a Look at the Lawmen" (42:04)
- "Let All the Children Boogie" (42:54)
- "Home Is Where You Hang Your Holster" (43:07)
- "The Simple Secret of the Note in Us All" (40:11)
- "Revenge of Broken Jaw" (43:10)
- "Coffee, Tea, or Annie" (42:55)
- "All the Young Dudes" (43:03)
- "Everyone Knows It's Windy" (42:50)
- "Life Is a Rock" (43:11)

Video

Okay, down to the basic facts: “Life on Mars – The Complete Series” features 17 episodes, spread across 4 discs, all with 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, preserving the original aspect ratio of the initial HDTV broadcast. Now that that’s out of the way, let me say this: “Life on Mars” isn’t a particularly attractive looking show, at least in the conventional sense, but it’s an interesting looking one, that’s for sure. Which, primarily, is because it’s part of the new generation of hyper-stylized programming.

In more ways than one, “Life on Mars” reminds me of a Tony Scott film, by which I mean, at times, it can be visually chaotic. Intentional double exposure, high contrast photography, rapid-fire editing and all sorts of canted angles make for some unique looking moments in this show. And, like Scott (or Oliver Stone), the series’ directors and cinematographers mix seemingly every and any kind of film stock that they can find. Although primarily shot on conventional 35mm film, hand-crank 8mm, ultra-gritty Super16 and various other, often high-speed, stocks is intermixed. I even think there is some use of digital HD video used infrequently, although I’m not too sure.

Don’t misunderstand; it’s not that the various film stocks appear with clockwork like frequency in every episode, all the time, in fact there are some episodes that are strictly clean 35mm the whole way through, but interspersed sporadically in many episodes, and across the whole series, flashbacks and other stylized sequences make use of the different grain structures, color renditions, editing types and camerawork.

Continuing in the direction of a unique visual identity, blacks are sometimes crushed, although intentionally so. They remain deep through the entire series, just a little too deep sometimes. Contrast is tweaked to the absolute extreme, with different filters exacerbating the temperature of a scene, frequently leaving overcooked or underdone imagery. Skintones range from overly reddish sunburns, in the 70's, to sickly pale pastiness in the present day (2008). Whereas everything in 1973 is shot behind either an amber, green or, very infrequently, blue, filter, the short snippets of Sam “past” (which is really the future from his current standpoint) in 2008, are cast in a desaturated, nearly monochrome, bleakness.

Style aside, the transfer to DVD is solid. Detail is fairly good, if occasionally obscured by filters or grain. Macro blocking is present but within what I would consider acceptable levels. I see no evidence of edge enhancement or unwanted digital noise reduction (I do think some has been used, but intentionally so to give certain scenes a soft, “glowing” appearance). I also didn’t really notice anything too distracting – no noticeable aliasing, unacceptable color banding and so on. Still, having watched the show at least a few times on HDTV during the initial broadcast, the DVD simply doesn’t hold a candle to what I remember. Not that it should, as even upconverted, this is still standard definition, but, I do have to say that as I ran through this DVD, I longed for the sharper, more accurate, clarity of High-Definition. It’s really a shame that ABC decided to forego a Blu-ray release alongside this DVD set; the show certainly could benefit from a 1080p transfer. If for no other reason than the fact that the Blu-ray would more appropriately reflect the vision of the directors and production crew.

It’s imperfect, but the DVD is adequate given the circumstances. One shouldn’t hesitate to seek out this set as I, unfortunately, don’t see a blu-ray edition on the horizon for a long time.

Audio

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix, encoded at 384 kbps, is surprisingly agile, clear and dynamic. Surrounds channels are frequently used, panning effects come full 360, and ambient sounds are funneled appropriately and effectively. The soundtrack comes alive whenever any of the late 60's and early 70's rock-centric music is channeled through the speakers, creating a full-bodied, immersive feeling. Bass is surprisingly forceful for a TV program; low frequency information is nicely separated and shared between the dedicated LFE and the left and right fronts. A tidy presentation, the track has weight to it but, because of this delicate balance between the .1 sub extension and reasonably supportive fronts, it doesn’t sound overdone or uncharacteristically explosive. In all, this is pretty darn good sounding DVD. It’s not perfect, as I noticed a few instances sprinkled throughout the series of inconsistent dialogue levels, but still, overall, “Life on Mars” is an impressive sounding set. The respectable quality of the DVD only makes me wish even more for that Blu-ray edition which will likely never come. I can only imagine what the series would sound like in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. My guess? It would be pure reference.
Subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish. The only other audio option is an infrequent batch (only four in this set) of commentary tracks, encoded as 192 kbps, and delivered via Dolby 2.0 stereo. Of note, the commentaries also have optional subtitles in the languages mentioned above; a nice touch, I think.

Extras

“Life on Mars – the Complete Series” comes to DVD via ABC Studios, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. They pack this 4-disc set with a reasonable amount of extras for a TV on DVD release, offering audio commentary on select episodes, three behind-the-scenes featurettes, a blooper reel, 10 deleted scenes and a series of bonus trailers. All of the video based material is 16x9-enhanced widescreen.

DISC ONE:

The first of four audio commentaries in this set is offered on the series pilot, “Out There In the Fields.” Executive producers Josh Applebaum and André Nemec are talkative, informative and well spoken. As commentaries go, this is pretty good; the two men discuss actors, casting, how certain sequences were achieved and the work involved in adapting a British television program for American audiences.

Finally, a series of bonus trailers round off the first disc's supplements. Trailers and previews include:

- "ABC TV on DVD and Blu-ray" promo. Runs 1 minute 35 seconds.
- “LOST: The Complete 5th Season” on DVD and Blu-ray trailer. 58 seconds.
- “The Proposal” on DVD and Blu-ray trailer. Runs 1 minute 31 seconds.
- “Cheri” on DVD trailer. 1 minute 22 second.
- "Disney Blu-ray" promo. 1 minute.

DISC TWO:

Audio commentary on “Things to Do in New York When You Think You’re Dead” with actor Jason O’Mara and executive producers Michael Katleman and Scott Rosenberg. It’s odd to hear O’Mara in his native tongue but otherwise; this is another well-done commentary from the cast and crew. Katleman also directed this episode, and Rosenberg wrote it, so this is an interesting track as viewers get opinions from pretty much all the major players – writer, director, producer and actor.

A second audio commentary is included by executive producers André Nemec and Josh Applebaum on the episode “The Man Who Sold the World.” Much like their initial commentary, there’s loads of information here and the men continue to be well spoken and thorough.

DISC THREE:

This disc contains no extras.

DISC FOUR:

The series’ finale, “Life is a Rock,” contains an optional audio commentary with actor Jason O’Mara, executive producers Josh Applebaum, Scott Rosenberg and executive producer/episode director Michael Katleman. Solid, enjoyable, informative, the creative team continues (and finishes off) strong, with this commentary track on the shows finale episode. Unfotunately, the episode this track supplements is one gigantic disappointment, but nonetheless this is a perfectly acceptable conversation with some of the key players.

Kicking things off is “To Mars and Back,” a behind-the-scenes featurette. Although it’s a bit fluffy for my tastes, with a few too many clips from the show and on-set interviews that were obviously shot during some downtime between scenes, it is nevertheless, an informative, if entirely superfluous, piece. Almost all of what’s discussed here is also covered, and to a greater extent in most cases, via the various commentary tracks. As this is a good fit for those who don’t have the time (or just don’t want to) listen to the superior commentaries, I won’t discount this brief featurette as entirely skippable, but honestly I got more out of the supplement tracks. Runs 15 minutes 36 seconds.

This short featurette, titled “Sunrise to Sunset with Jason O’Mara,” is a day in the life of actor/star Jason O’Mara on the set of “Life on Mars.” Nothing really to discuss with this piece; the actor walks and talks us through a routine day at work. Runs 9 minutes 34 seconds.

This is a head-scratcher. Why the crew decided to produce “Flashback: Lee Majors Goes to Mars” featurette a weird piece that has the "Six-Million Dollar Man" (1974-1978) himself, Lee Majors, touring the set of “Life on Mars” is beyond my grasp of things. Various little factoids pop up about the actor as the tour progresses; I guess they’re supposed to be funny? Although it may be a little fun to have a man who was famous in the 70's return to the faux 70's as a short gag, this is a throwaway featurette that adds absolutely nothing to the package, and runs an exhaustive 7 minutes 55 seconds, which is much, much, much too long for this sort of thing.

A standard blooper reel appears in the form of the short piece titled “Spaced Out: Bloopers From the Set.” This is just the usual slate clacking, line flubbing, and scene derailing series of screw-ups. Runs 2 minutes 43 seconds.

Finally, 10 deleted scenes finish off the package. There’s nothing essential here, just extensions and a few conclusions of unnecessary side plots. Unfortunately, although the packaging claims that an optional audio commentary is included on these scenes, I couldn’t find it. There’s no mention of commentaries in the menu and using the audio button on my remote revealed nothing either. Excised scenes include:

- An extended conversation between Sam and his future mentor, Fletcher Bellow (Edi Gathegi). 1 minute 30 seconds.
- Hunt explains to Fletcher that he doesn’t hate blacks; he hates everyone, including the Irish, Mexicans and, yes, even the Himalayans. Hunt then offers Fletcher a job at the one-two-five. 50 seconds.
- Sam has a conversation with his nudist-hippy neighbor (Tanya Fischer) and comments that she’s “ahead of her time.” 2 minutes 30 seconds.
- Another extended scene between Sam and Windy (Tanya Fischer) about one of the worst days Tyler has had in a long while. The scene ends with Chris (Jonathan Murphy) letting Sam in on a break in the case. 3 minutes 36 seconds.
- And yet another excised convo between everyone favorite hippy and our hapless hero. This time they talk over a game of chess. 42 seconds.
- Annie has a trippy vision. 24 seconds.
- A suspect takes a lie detector test. 1 minute
- Sweet. The squad walks in on a group of girls in their underwear dancing to a song. Unfortunately, as the scene didn’t make it into the final cut, there isn’t any song to correspond to the dance (why pay royalties on a song, if it’s not going to be included?) and this looks awkward. 1 minute 37 seconds.
- Sam talks with Marla (Maggie Siff) about aliens. The little green kind. 2 minutes 8 seconds.
- Sam receives a mysterious postcard from an odd old man. 1 minute 29 seconds.

Packaging

“Life on Mars – The Complete Series” packs 4 dual layered DVD-9s in a clear Amaray keep-case. A cardboard slipcover is also included, as is an insert detailing disc contents. A word on these Amaray DVD packs: although I’m a fan of these cases as they save space on my media shelf, they serve as problematic when dealing with more than 3 discs. The addition of that fourth platter makes the case seem cramped; the DVD's themselves begin to get a little difficult to remove due to the overstuffing as well, which is my biggest gripe. Still, I’ll take these slimmer cases given the choice between them and an overdone Digi-Pak (*cough* “Star Trek – TOS: Remastered” *cough*) any day of the week.

Overall

The Show: B- Video: B- Audio: A- Extras: C Overall: B-

 


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