Take a Look at the Lawman Beating Up the Wrong Guy: An Analysis of Life on Mars [Part One]
Don’t you dare tell me that this show is shit. [source]
Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes is one of the best television concepts of the past ten years. In fact, it’s more than just a concept; it’s a clever and well-executed crime procedural with a twist. And I love it. These two shows will forever be favourites of mine – and if someone dares to speak ill of them, I will fight on their behalf. Which is what happened during our Writing TV class this afternoon: our tutor dared to [repeatedly] use Life on Mars as an example of “merely a great idea” that is “limited” by a lack of “theme”. I tried to remain calm, but after about the fifth mention of the show as a failure, when the tutor actually claimed that this was the reason the show had been cancelled after two seasons, I had to speak up. Firstly, because Life on Mars wasn’t cancelled – Matthew Graham [one of the creators and writers for the show] confirmed this himself, stating: “We decided that Sam’s journey should have a finite life span and a clear-cut ending and we feel that we have now reached that point after two series” [source]. And secondly, because the show actually does have “theme”. It might be different to Buffy the Vampire Slayer [one of the “good” examples used], but it’s certainly there.
But, what is “theme” anyway? And why should we care about it? Well, according to the notes we were given today, it goes a little something like this:
“Every show must have a second, deeper layer of conflict underneath the surface level. This gives the show depth and meaning. It’s also what keeps it going when other shows with similar surface conflict have bitten the dust.”
So, basically, “theme” is the driving force behind the program. The thing that makes us tune in week after week. And, if you ask me, Life on Mars has plenty of it.
At its core, Life on Mars is essentially a police procedural. The surface conflict, week after week, comes from the cases facing the detectives at Manchester CID, and the different approaches taken by Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt. These are our two central characters: both strong-willed men with a passion for justice, but with conflicting opinions about rules and whether they should be followed.
Under the surface, however, it’s a show about fitting in. Sam Tyler is a fish out of water, learning to adapt in a world that is foreign to him. He’s not even entirely sure whether he wants to be there. And everyone that he meets thinks that he’s a bit weird – he talks about things that haven’t even been invented yet, and claims that he’s from the future. How are the folks at CID supposed to work with a raving lunatic? And how can Sam convince them that he’s not completely mad? Now, the problem with this, according to what I was taught today, is that this is a conflict that will eventually be resolved. However, I don’t see anything wrong with that. As Matthew Graham said, Sam’s story is finite. It has a clear beginning and end. Good television shows don’t necessarily need to go on for ten seasons [something that I shall discuss further in part three].
Besides, the tension between Sam and Gene – which is the catalyst of many conflicts throughout the series, and one of the reasons why it is so entertaining – is something that would always be there. These are men from different worlds. Sam is from the clinical police force of the “future” [or present, if you prefer], where the tiniest bit of red tape can destroy an investigation. The Gene Genie, on the other hand, believes that gut instinct is more important than evidence, and that there’s nothing wrong with roughing up a subject in order to get the information you’re after. No matter how much respect is earnt between the two of them, this layer of conflict isn’t going to disappear.
The science fiction elements add another layer to the series – one that doesn’t disturb casual viewers [those people who just want to watch a cop show], but enhances the journey that Sam undertakes throughout the show. And it adds to the fear – something that I’ll be going further into a bit later, probably in part two. The character of Sam Tyler has two fears: a fear of being a bad police officer [because he cares about his job], and a fear of not getting back to where [he thinks] he belongs.
There’s also, of course, the love story that blossoms between Sam and Annie. And, of course, the friendships that are formed. Firstly, the friendship and partnership between Sam and Gene, but also the friendship between Sam and Chris. Chris sees Sam as a bit of a mentor; he learns from him, and this helps Chris develop into a better detective. This is all part of Sam learning to belong in the world of 1973. See? “Theme”.
Now, I’ve barely scratched the surface here in exploring exactly why Life on Mars is not an example of bad television. In part two [coming soon], I shall use today’s lessons on character to explore both Sam and Gene a little further, and part three [coming some time after part two] will discuss the structure of the show, and why it was particularly effective.