Tuesday, February 17, 2009

We Kill Your Shows

"Life on Mars"

I've watched two more episodes of ABC's thoughtful, witty "Life on Mars" and I'm almost convinced that it's doomed. This is a show that has an attention to period detail that puts the almost willfully anachronistic "That 70's Show" to shame. The most recent installment, with Cheyenne Jackson as B-list glam rocker Sebastian Grace, was like a love letter to the seedy side of the decade's music. It had everything from a groupie's wistful dad quoting Bad Company to Chris the Rookie (Jonathan Murphy) imagining flying saucers while dosed on acid. Riffing on Almost Famous and throwing in a delicious Bowie-scored sequence where the time-traveling hero (Jason O'Mara) begs the space aliens to take him home, "Life on Mars" has just continuously impressed since I added it to the season pass list a month ago.

What I like best about the show -- and I'm going to have to compare it against the BBC original, once I get through "The Wire" on my Netflix queue -- is the way that anything is possible. That's not the most elegant or original way of putting it, but "Mars" doesn't have rules. If Sam (O'Mara) sees little tiny robots emerging from a suicide victim's bloodstream, the viewer must consider the possibility that the dead guy had little tiny robots in his blood. When Detective Skelton first saw the UFO's coming over the hill, even though the director didn't cheat and showed him drinking from a grape juice bottle supplied by Jackson's untrustworthy Grace beforehand, for at least a half-second you had to consider the possibility that he was in fact being abducted by aliens.

The fact that something pointedly insane could happen at any moment is brought into relief by how detailed the 70's-era observations are. Grace's band was done just beautifully, from the imperfections in their stage makeup to the authenticity of their (fictional) one hit, "The Last Planet I Kissed." The interplay between Sam and his love interest entered the series with a sitcom plot but has quickly gone somewhere else, as Sam's modern post-feminist attitudes make him the shrinking violet to Maggie Siff's raging id.

The show's style matches the show's premise -- it's a perfectly put-together puzzle with one obviously wrong piece. The random weirdness wouldn't work if the believability of the setting wasn't otherwise so carefully constructed, and all of the period references would be self-indulgent if there wasn't so obvious and contemporary a submerged line running through it. All this and Wally Shawn! Since it rewards close attention and asks far more of the viewer than the average episode of, say, "NCIS," I'm almost positive "Life on Mars" will never see a second season. Watch it while you can.

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