Thursday, April 2, 2009

Life on Mars

Last night was the finale to the ABC television series Life on Mars. Dumbest ending ever to what had been a pretty decent show. Highlight below for spoilers:

The original premise of the show had the protagonist, a detective in 2008, suffering a blow to the head and then waking up in the year 1973, with no idea how he got there or how to get back. With no way home, nor even any clues to offer explanation or hope, he can only continue on working cases as a detective in the past, where new relationships slowly make life more appealing than anything he had had back in his own time. In the final five minutes of the series, after he has come to the conclusion that he'd rather stay in 1973 after all, the TV image distorts and abruptly cuts to him waking up aboard a futuristic spacecraft. It's revealed that he is actually a crewman aboard the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2035. The entire series up to that point had been a semi-scripted simulation to keep his mind active while he slept through the trip. Due to turbulence, the dream had glitched out, causing the scene to break from his intended 2008 cop scenario and strand him in 1973.

Now, I'd like to say that, if a show is strong leading up to its finale, a weak ending should not lower my regard for what came before. In theory, this ending isn't even that bad. It makes sense, and while I didn't see it coming, thinking back, there had been clues leading in this direction. Basically, it's The Wizard of Oz, which the show repeatedly referenced. More universally, I think we've surely all had those dreams where we live out lives better than the ones we have, where we are better people than we are, and whence we find ourselves waking to dreary reality come rushing back unstoppably to drown out the fantasy, that we may resume our meager existences acting as if nothing has changed, because, in fact, nothing did happen, and none of it meant a damned thing. Actually, TV shows like Life on Mars are themselves a sort of escape from reality along those same transient lines.

But understanding it doesn't make it any less frustrating, and, aside from The Wizard of Oz, I can't think of any other story that has successfully pulled off the "it was all a dream" twist. Most of the time, as in the case of Life on Mars, I just feel like the story is letting me know that I wasted my time following events that never mattered even within the world of the fiction. It doesn't make for a very satisfying conclusion. In fact, it kind of pisses me off. While the show had been more than decent, as police procedurals go, I can't deny that I stuck with it partly just because I was curious how the mystery would be resolved. Now I can only imagine the writers laughing at me with this "gotcha" twist. And it's further marred by cheap set design on that final future scene, with the spaceship looking, maybe deliberately, like a 1970s conception of a futuristic spaceship, full of blinking lights on walls that look like they might be made of cardboard. Populated by the same people who had been macho detectives, now astronauts apparently, the image is impossible to take seriously on such short notice.

To be honest, even though I liked the show all right, I was kind of relieved when I heard that it would not be renewed for a second season. The supernatural mystery aspects would have quickly become unbearable in a procedural if dragged out too long. Having now seen how the story concludes, I'm really glad that the show ended before it could rob any more of my time.

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