Life on Mars
Time Out says
All those synthetic fabrics and garish prints make it awfully easy to poke fun at the 1970s, but the present decade will look just as tacky in 30 years—and we can’t yet lay claim to a band as influential as the Ramones or a novelist as significant as Toni Morrison. By borrowing its title from David Bowie’s soaring 1971 glam aria, this British time-travel drama dangles the prospect of a more nuanced depiction of the era; after an intriguing pilot, however, the series settles for congratulating the audience for living in the here and now.
John Simm plays Sam Tyler, a Manchester police inspector who takes a nasty head blow while listening to the Bowie song on his iPod, and wakes up in 1973 to hear it blasting from the eight-track player of a Ford Cortina. He’s implausibly accepted as a detective who has just transferred to town, and is soon investigating homicides with a backslapping crew whose knowledge of forensic science makes them seem more like guys from the 1870s. Sam occasionally has hallucinations that suggest he’s actually dreaming while comatose in 2006, and these sequences offer a frustrating glimpse at the series’s unrealized potential. The premise could have yielded a crackerjack psychological drama in the vein of British TV legend Dennis Potter’s seminal Pennies from Heaven, but the writers settled for a boilerplate cop show tarted up with rib nudging about the sexism and unhealthy lifestyles that we modern sophisticates have theoretically outgrown. Lars von Trier was famously forced to replace the Bowie classic in video editions of Breaking the Waves, and the song’s repeated use here adds insult to injury. — Andrew Johnston