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"Life on Mars": The Complete Series DVD Review

Buy Life on Mars: The Complete Series on DVD from Amazon.com Life on Mars (2008-09)
Show & DVD Details

Developers: Josh Applebaum, Andrι Nemec, Scott Rosenberg / British Series Creators: Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, Ashley Pharoah

Repeat Writers: Bryan Oh, Tracy McMillan, David Wilcox, Sonny Postiglione, Adele Lim, Meredith Averill, Phil M. Rosenberg, Scott Rosenberg / Repeat Directors: Gary Fleder, Michael Katleman, Alex Zakrzewski, Darnell Martin, Michael Pressman, Dan Minahan, Rick Rosenthal, Brad Turner, David Barrett, Jean de Segonzac, Stephen Kay, David Petrarca

Starring Cast: Jason O'Mara (Sam Tyler), Michael Imperioli (Ray Carling), Gretchen Mol (Annie Norris), Jonathan Murphy (Chris Skelton), Harvey Keitel (Lieutenant Gene Hunt)

Recurring Characters: Jennifer Ferrin (Rose Tyler), Tanya Fischer (Windy), Lisa Bonet (Maya Daniels), Maggie Siff (Maria Belanger), Dean Winters (Vic Tyler), Peter Gerety (Frank Morgan), Peter Greene (Jimmy McManus), Caleb Wallace (Young Sammy Tyler), Lee Tergesen (Lee Crocker), John Cenatiempo (Sizable Ted), Steven Marcus (Wino), Emerald Young (Keisha)

Notable Guest Stars: Heather Matarazzo (June), Robert Klein (Elliott Casso), Odette Yustman (Adrienne), Chris Bauer (Father Tim), Edi Gathegi (Fletcher Bellow), Whoopi Goldberg (Brother Lovebutter - uncredited), Brad William Henke (Michael H), Bill Irwin (Dr. Schwahn), Eric Balfour (Eddie Carling), Kevin Conway (Donovan "The Werewolf of Wall Street" Stamp), Vincent Curatola (Anthony Nunzio), Cheyenne Jackson (Sebastian Grace), Wallace Shawn (Stephen "The Sorcerer" Morrell), Laura Benanti (Denise Carling), Chris Bowers (Tony Crane), Fred Dalton Thompson (Chief Harry Woolf), Kevin Kilner (Dr. Richard Olsen), Janel Moloney (Professor Pat Olsen), Mark Deklin (Ronald Harris), Gina Gershon (Rita Harris), Mark Linn-Baker (Lincoln Hart), Paige Turco (Colleen McManus), Scott Adsit (Dr. Clifford Dorsett)

Running Time: 726 Minutes (17 episodes) / Rating: TV-PG
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French; Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled & Captioned
DVD Release Date: September 29, 2009 / Season 1 Airdates: October 9, 2008 - April 1, 2009
Four single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s); Suggested Retail Price: $23.99 (Was $39.99)
Clear Keepcase with Cardboard Slipcover

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One moment, New York City police detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) is investigating the disappearance of his girlfriend in the present day. The next, he is hit by a car and instantly, inexplicably sent back to 1973.
That is the premise of "Life on Mars", an ABC drama adapted from the BBC series of the same name.

Tyler doesn't immediately know where, or more accurately when, he is, but he's recognized as the new transfer to the NYPD's 125th Precinct and settles into the job he's used to. The jump back thirty-five years, however, does entail drastic changes in working procedures. Computers are nowhere, women are marginalized, forensic evidence is limited, lab work takes weeks, and there's drinking on the job. Suspects are regularly roughed up and, depending on their mood, witnesses are antagonized or buttered up.

Filled with questions that can only be answered by the theory that he's in an alternate reality, Tyler becomes part of a procedural police drama whose distinguishing feature is its period setting.

2008 police detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) inexplicably finds himself in 1973 New York in the American "Life on Mars." Sent back to 1973, Sam Tyler joins the ranks of the 125th Precinct and sees 35 years of police detective progress undone.

"Life on Mars" impresses more as an ambitious recreation of the past than as a crime drama. Never before in a long-form TV series has so much attention been paid to setting and detail. The cars, the clothing, and all of the set dressing help you to experience the same temporal relocation that Sam Tyler has. Even the language and attitudes feel authentic. Predating political correctness, it's not just the miscreant expressing views we today recognize as racist or homophobic. Some of the cultural references feel a bit forced, but even they are easy to appreciate.

One of the biggest benefits to the setting is that it opens the door to arguably rock 'n roll's greatest era. The show makes liberal use of late '60s and early '70s music.
The David Bowie song that lends its title to the series turns up three times, most notably in the initial quantum leap and each to haunting effect. Other sampled tunes enhance the drama and period feel, even when choppy editing suggests greater effort should have been taken to make scenes fit them rather than vice versa.

Nearly a hundred songs are featured throughout the season. Among the most effectively-placed anthems are The Who's "Baba O'Riley", The Rolling Stones' "Out of Time", Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am a Rock", T-.Rex's "Get It On (Bang a Gong)", Bowie's "Starman", Cream's "White Room", The Moody Blues' "Go Now", and, from Elton John, "Rocket Man" and "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters." Near the end of the run, prominent song titles and lyrics twice stand as episode titles. (Similar homages don't guarantee song usage earlier in the season.) The show is not just a parade of chart-toppers and greatest hits, either. Less familiar songs feature throughout and carry that distinctive sound that unnecessarily but welcomely reinforces the time setting.

No stranger to 1970s New York City drama, Harvey Keitel plays Lieutenant Gene Hunt, who runs his precinct as he chooses, with fists and flasks. Reflecting the times, the cast's lone regular female (Gretchen Mol) is nicknamed "No Nuts" and reduced to getting coffee and lunch while detective work is left to the men (like Michael Imperioli).

That Sam Tyler is from the twenty-first century is not just some premise gimmick; it lends the show a slight but ever-present science fiction twist. This angle provides the most opportunity for the series to get hokey, as when Sam is getting some mysterious cosmic phone call or seeing tiny robotic vehicles rove into his mouth. But even when they clash with the hard-edged crime investigation around it, such trifling moments aren't hard to forgive. The comedic value of the conceit is neither overplayed nor squandered; like Marty McFly, Tyler's visitor from the future status provides occasional hilarity, as when Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" saves his life.

I appreciate that Sam's fantastic situation is not kept much a secret. A lesser show could milk that notion for seasons to come. He isn't given the straightjacket, background check, and bill of insanity that reality might bring. But, met with healthy doses of skepticism, he earns the nickname "Spaceman" and his divergent methods are explained in that he's "from Hyde."

Hints to Sam's actual predicament appear to lie in space-time continuum glitches. The fascinating concept that seems to take shape is that he is fully living in 1973 New York while apparently laying comatose in his real life. His girlfriend/work partner Maya (recurring Lisa Bonet of "The Cosby Show") is his (and our) connection to his world, always inspiring a reunion that seems distant and, by the nature of the series, improbable. The season/series-long mystery -- "what is real?" -- unfolds on the fringe. Unfortunately, the resolution doled out in the final five minutes of the series finale is one you question how everybody could have signed off on, even with foreshadowing clues dropped here and there. If you have any regard for the series up to that point, you'll probably want to forget what serves to undermine all the fine ideas and engaging drama that preceded it.

Sam fills a chalkboard with possible theories for his temporal relocation back to 1973. Sam (Jason O'Mara) perks up as the TV behind him shows a bit of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, one of many 2009 things Sam is missing.

The majority of our time is spent with Sam and the officers of the 125 as they solve crimes. Per TV drama, all of these are riveting and remarkable. Always the lead and rarely absent from a scene, Sam is the clear good guy, who's unwilling to play by 1973's archaic rules. Playing successfully to type, Harvey Keitel is tough, white-loafered "Lieut", Lieutenant Gene Hunt, who sips from a flask and makes his own rules.
Michael Imperioli ("The Sopranos") is Ray Carling, a wise-cracking, handlebar-mustachioed detective with a chip on his shoulder over his anticipated promotion being filled by Tyler. Providing some contrast and warmth is the educated Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol, Rounders), who accepts the profession's discouraging limitations for her gender while proving herself an invaluable resource in investigations and flirting with love interest status to Sam. Finally, there is Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy), a young, naοve detective who carries out his work without the ego and bravado of his male colleagues.

It does seem like the period setting is of greater interest to the show's makers than week-to-week plots. "Life on Mars" can be slow in stretches and not all of its crime stories are as sharp as they should be. Generally, the success is proportional to the degree of human interest. Episodes involving Sam's parents, who in 1973 are around the same age as him, play out less conventionally and more poignantly than ones dealing with routine hoods and crime lords.

This "Life on Mars" remake received good marks from critics. But despite claiming timeslots after two of ABC's biggest heavyweights ("Grey's Anatomy" in the fall, "Lost" in the winter), the series never got the kind of ratings it needed, taking a steep dive in its second week and never recovering. (The two-month mid-season hiatus probably didn't help.) The show was cancelled, and its seventeenth episode would be its last, something producers were (fortunately or not) apprised of when making it. Seventeen episodes is one more than its British predecessor got, although those came over the course of two seasons (the UK keeps seasons trim, a model that makes sense creatively) and inspired spin-off series "Ashes to Ashes", which will soon begin production of a third season.

Not long ago, a show cancelled after one season was considered done and unlikely to resurface anywhere (legally at least). Now, thanks to DVD, that is no longer the case. Last week, Disney/ABC's home entertainment division released The Complete Series as the tail end of the studios' fall TV DVD blitz. The 4-disc set holds all 17 episodes with, and this is both expected and essential, all that pre-recorded music retained. Despite running just a few episodes shy of what most of today's shows consider a full season, the lighter than usual disc count on "Life on Mars" is reflected in a list price that is $20 below the tags carried by its hour-long ABC brethren. (Update: A subsequent price drop has put this 4-disc DVD at catalog movie prices, with only a $23.99 SRP.)

Red stars () indicate my favorite episodes of the series.

Detective Sam Tyler realizes he's not in 2008 anymore upon seeing the World Trade Center's Twin Towers standing, in a sadly poignant pilot episode reveal. Gene (Harvey Keitel) has Sam (Jason O'Mara) get a nice close look at the bloodshed occurring from his judgment call in the series' second episode. Sam and Annie console a boy whose father is murdered in "My Maharishi Is Bigger Than Your Maharishi."

Disc 1

1. Out Here in the Fields (43:08) (Originally aired October 9, 2008)
A traffic accident sends Sam Tyler back to 1973, where he joins the NYPD and investigates a series of abduction/homicides that resemble ones he was trying to crack in 2008.

2. The Real Adventures of the Unreal Sam Tyler (42:00) (Originally aired October 16, 2008)
Investigating a series of deadly check cashing center robberies, Sam suspects a dirty cop might be involved.

3. My Maharishi Is Bigger Than Your Maharishi (43:11) (Originally aired October 23, 2008)
In trying to crack the murder of a Vietnam War vet, Sam turns his attentions to hippies and then the gay community.

4. Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows? (43:08) (Originally aired October 30, 2008)
Sam is the only one willing to upset the department's arrangement with an organized crime outfit leaning on his young mother to pay back a loan.

Sam and his future mentor (Edi Gathegi) take to Brother Lovebutter's airwaves on a racially-charged homicide investigation. Michael H (Brad William Henke) uses a gun, dynamite, and hostages to ensure his brother gets a brain operation in "Tuesday's Dead." Sam's parents (Jennifer Ferrin, Dean Winters) are happy at their son's fourth birthday party just moments before a pivotal event changes the family.

Disc 2

5. Things to Do in New York When You Think You're Dead (42:42) (Originally aired November 6, 2008)
Racial unrest breaks out along with a manhunt for the Puerto
Rican man suspected of throwing a young black girl to her death.

6. Tuesday's Dead (43:06) (Originally aired November 13, 2008)
While he gets notice that his plug is to be pulled in 2008, Tyler negotiates a hostage situation in a hospital's psych ward.

7. The Man Who Sold the World (43:08) (Originally aired November 20, 2008)
Tyler deals with his father Vic, who is mixed up in a mob kidnapping just days before his own son's fateful fourth birthday party.

8. The Dark Side of the Mook (42:28) (Originally aired February 4, 2009)
Non-linearly, an internal investigation looks for a connection between Ray's petty younger brother (Eric Balfour), a robbed Wall Street philanthropist (Kevin Conway), two ornate beheadings, and Tyler's secret discovery.

9. Take a Look at the Lawmen (42:04) (Originally aired January 28, 2009)
The 125th vies with a rival precinct to nab a Russian man suspected in an armed bank robbery. Tyler picks up a new love interest, with a catch.

Unknowingly under the influence of LSD, Chris (Jonathan Murphy) witnesses what he believes is an alien abduction in "Let All the Children Boogie." Everyone's a murder suspect when the police station is locked down in "Home Is Where You Hang Your Holster." Lieutenant Hunt (Harvey Keitel) gets physical with a college professor (Janel Moloney) involved in bombings that have killed his cop friends.

Disc 3

10. Let All the Children Boogie (42:54) (Originally aired February 11, 2009)
Assigned to protect threatened (fictional) glam rock star Sebastian Grace (Cheyenne Jackson), Chris is convinced he witnessed a groupie's abduction by aliens.

11. Home Is Where You Hang Your Holster (43:07) (Originally aired February 18, 2009)
The police station is locked down after a councilman with secrets is shot to death there.

12. The Simple Secret of the Note in Us All (40:11) (Originally aired February 25, 2009)
Media scrutiny requires a clean investigation into the subway murder of a controversial columnist. That's easier said than done, with Sam determined to bust a man he recognizes from future atrocities and the rest of the department turning suspicions elsewhere.

13. Revenge of Broken Jaw (43:10) (Originally aired March 4, 2009)
Police officers appear to be targeted in a series of student terrorist bombings tied to the anniversary of a friend's suspicious death.

Posing as a dead brunette stewardess, Annie (Gretchen Mol) takes to the friendly skies for the first time. Jason O'Mara's wife Paige Turco guest-stars as his character's childhood babysitter/undercover adulthood liaison in "All the Young Dudes." Here, Sam is surprised to see his mother stop by. The final episode brings Sam to the fabled Hyde, which is rather desolate in its off-season.

Disc 4

14. Coffee, Tea, or Annie (42:55) (Originally aired March 11, 2009)
Annie goes undercover,
posing as a murdered stewardess she resembles and entering the world of swinger sex parties.

15. All the Young Dudes (43:03) (Originally aired March 18, 2009)
Sam poses as a tough Irish immigrant to infiltrate a crime unit with a connection to his youth.

16. Everyone Knows It's Windy (42:50) (Originally aired March 25, 2009)
A federal agent investigates the precinct in the death of a fugitive criminal whose given reason for revenge. Evidence points to Sam being the culprit.

17. Life Is a Rock (43:11) (Originally aired April 1, 2009)
Sam's parents and younger self resurface in what ends up being his final mission. And just when he thinks he's figured out why he's in 1973, we get a different and rather unsatisfying explanation that those enjoying the series up to this point may wish to discard.

Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol) quickly becomes a sympathetic confidant to Sam. This video glitch is no fault of the DVD, it simply sets up a finale conclusion that retools the series' entire reality. After you see it, you may wish your DVD actually locked up and shut down back here.


Like just about all of its contemporaries, "Life on Mars" comes to DVD in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The series has a slight and (I'm guessing) deliberate grain look that aligns with the period setting without lessening the viewing experience.
The '70s are indicated with a soft yellow tint (especially inside the precinct's walls), but colors still have a natural and pleasing appearance. The soundtrack is appropriately pretty active, with the surround environment used on ambient, atmospheric noises and the regular stream of pop tunes. Although the discs are packed more tightly than most (there's close to four hours of video on Discs 2 and 4), the compression and low bit rates don't seem to affect the show's presentability.


By length, the biggest supplement is four audio commentaries spread throughout. These vary in quality.

Developers/executive producers Josh Applebaum and Andrι Nemec are compelling in their two-man chats of "Out Here in the Fields" and "The Man Who Sold the World." They offer full discussions, covering their intentions, the show's relationship with the British series, their other influences, and some of the details that went into the period setting. They give that satisfying blend of information and analysis, even tackling such distinctive features as Michael Imperioli's mustache. If you're listening to the commentaries while moving through the series for the first time, do know they do occasionally touch upon (if not quite spoiling) the finale.

Actor Jason O'Mara is joined by co-executive producer Michael Katleman and executive producer Scott Rosenberg on the track for "Things to Do in New York When You Think You're Dead." Their remarks are quieter and sparser, providing some inside information and observations, but not much. You do get to hear the light Irish accent that O'Mara disguises on the show.

The final commentary, on "Life is a Rock", is a little better if only because of the interesting topics pertaining to it. This one assembles O'Mara, Katleman, Rosenberg, and Applebaum. They comment upon the changes made in turning a planned season finale into a series finale. Defending this off-the-wall epilogue, they point out all the homages to science fiction that have been dropped throughout. And they reveal many points and moments that had to be squeezed out for time, none of which are preserved as deletions.

Jonathan Murphy discusses the show's attention to period detail during a break from filming at Coney Island in "To Mars and Back." Jason O'Mara, his stunt double, and assorted crew members take a look at the knee boo-boo he receives in "Sunrise to Sunset." In case you lose interest in Lee Majors' tour around the 125th precinct, pop-up facts remind you of Steve Austin's powerful bionic leg implants.

Disc 4's video extras begin with "To Mars and Back" (15:35), a featurette that quickly moves through various aspects of making the series. It compares this remake to the BBC version (which ought to have had some clips here), tackles the tasks of finding New York locations and props with which to recreate 1973, and serves up cast/crew sound bites and behind-the-scenes looks at production. Also discussed is the series' ending, which is far less polarizing than they expect (hardly anyone seems to have been thrilled with it). Though this is much brisker than it ought to be, it dispenses interesting information with no lulls.

As its title suggests, "Sunrise to Sunset with Jason O'Mara" (9:34) allows us to "spend a day" with the "Life on Mars" star. Working for 14 hours on the show's final episode, O'Mara is made up, beats up a stuntman, and gets shot (with plastic) doing his own stunt. You may have seen other extras like this, but even so, this is a fun look at dramatic TV acting.

"Flashback: Lee Majors Goes to Mars" (7:53) is another interesting and special bonus feature. Majors, an actor best known for his ABC TV series of the '60s, '70s, and '80s (particularly "The Six Million Dollar Man"), gets shown around the 125th Precinct set by Jason O'Mara. The two express admiration for one another's shows while pop-up facts add another layer of information and fun.

Gretchen Mol can't help cracking a smile in bloopers reel "Spaced Out." Oft-undressed hippie neighbor Windy (Tanya Fischer) appears in three of the set's deleted scenes. Each disc's animated main menu delightfully conjures the 1970s in design.

"Spaced Out: Bloopers from the Set" (2:42) consists of little more than actors laughing, always worth a look.

Finally, we get ten Deleted Scenes, 15 minutes and 33 seconds worth (but running longer due to their encoding and title transitions).
Three of these show us more of Windy (Tanya Fischer), Sam's potentially hallucinatory hippie neighbor who's comfortable out of her clothes. Two of them feature Sam's future mentor/one-time 1973 partner (Twilight's Edi Gathegi). The rest are generally shorter and more episode-driven, as when the cops show up to question groupies dancing in their underwear and Sam's morning-after alien talk with the Lieut's daughter (3-episode love interest Maggie Siff). The corny final one has Sam receiving a postcard from some kind of wizard postman, if for no other reason than to conjure an image from Bowie's "Life on Mars."

The DVD's main menus coolly opt for a 1970s look and feel, with groovy animation, colors, and score. Disc 1 opens with promos for ABC TV on DVD/Blu-ray, "Lost": The Complete Fifth Season, The Proposal, Cheri, and Blu-ray.

The 4-disc set is compactly packaged in a standard-sized keepcase, whose exterior artwork is repeated in a cardboard slipcover. Since the case is clear, we see that the interior holds a list of episodes and extras. At least, we do after setting aside Discs 1 & 2 and the loose Blu-ray pamphlet begging to be discarded. The copper-colored discs feature imagery from the series.

Time seems to move differently for those around Sam, as he gets one of his cosmic phone calls. The detectives of New York's 125th Precinct don '70s swim club wear as part of an undercover operation to nab a deadly robber.


"Life on Mars" brings contemporary sensibilities and sensitivities to the 1970s, perhaps the height of cop dramatizations on film (The French Connection, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, etc.). It's an inspired combination, even if the show is more of an achievement in period design (with its evocative music, fashions, and design) than in procedural police drama.
With terrific acting and many standout moments, it still comes awfully close to brilliance. The inane ending ensures it falls short; it's amazing how souring a series' last five minutes can be.

The quick cancellation, rendered inevitable by lackluster ratings, has both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, the DVD is reasonably priced, the series didn't have to run out of steam to meet weekly demands, and that tacky conclusion doesn't sting as much as it would on a longer-running program. On the other hand, arcs are undercut and we don't get to spend any more time in this compelling 1973 universe with these delightfully nuanced characters. All of these factors point to the British style of short seasons executed in full, a model that would have helped a series like this. (Although most BBC fans considered this remake superfluous, unnecessary, and DOA.)

All things considered, the US "Life on Mars" does merit a recommendation. An affordable, self-contained set with a satisfying selection of extras, it's a lot easier to get into than most TV drama DVDs. Especially if you press stop when the "video glitches" appear with five minutes left in the finale.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed October 10, 2009.

Text copyright 2009 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2008-09 Kudos Film and Television, ABC Studios, 20th Century Fox Television, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
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