Life on Mars

Fear and longing for the 1970s.

Most of us, I suspect, are rather nervous these days. One cannot help but wonder, if we are, indeed, experiencing the 21st century equivalent of 1929 or 1930″€”and if 1939 isn”€™t too far away. There is a strange feeling of disconnect in the air: for those of us who do not share the optimism (or the views) of the President of the Republic, things look rather dark. The more pious among us are keeping Lent with a vengeance”€”perhaps we should have been doing that all along. Of course, those of us who are numbered among the terminally nostalgic are seeking refuge in comfort food, old watering holes, and endless replays of old television and movies on DVD and YouTube”€”but then, we were doing that anyway.

But while this writer’s preferences may be found in the period before 1965 (which he can just remember), his youth was spent in that far-off wonderland that spawned his fellow late-Boomers and the early Xers: the “€˜70s. This was, in the words of my late friend, Dean McGovern, “€œthe decade that never should have happened.”€ He, as a club manager, was speaking of the music; but as my mind runs back, I can tick off all the things I hated about that era: the fashions, the politics, the architecture, and on and on.

Worst of all, it was the time when the “€œideals”€ of the “€˜60s were slowly enshrined as societal dogma, from free love and abortion, to foul language in front of women to those same women walking like men. Of course, those years morphed in their turn into the “€˜80s: in my neighborhood (Southern California) the age of Less Than Zero and Liquid Sky. Fashions improved, but all else continued as they had, “€˜till AIDS slowed things down for a while.

Despite all that, I”€™ve recently had cause to revisit the “€˜70s, thanks to the American version of a BBC hit, Life on Mars. This series is the story of hapless New York police detective Sam Tyler (Jason O”€™Mara), who has a car accident in 2008, and inexplicably wakes up in 1973. Every week’s episode has served up the conflict between Tyler’s supposedly enlightened views on police and societal affairs and the seeming Neanderthal beliefs of his fellow cops, especially Lt. Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel, in a role he has been working toward, well, since the “€˜70s). Sam’s only ally is Policewoman (yes, you read that right) Annie Norris (the beautiful Gretchen Mol). From my memories as a 12-13 year old, they have certainly captured the mood of the time.

It was a period of transition, to be sure; Hunt wears the stupid longish hair-do older men of that time who wanted to appear somehow “€œwith it”€ sported. In his case, as with most who tried, it is a failure. He drinks on the job, is racist, homophobic, and initially, corrupt in a VERY minor way. But LOM is not, like, say Pleasantville or Cold Case, a mere drumbeat for the superiority of the present. Hunt is shown, bit-by-bit, to be quite a decent sort; the other cops too are becoming less odious to Sam as he starts to understand them.

Understanding is one thing our hapless hero needs, because in, with, and under the rigors of trying to solve cases with neither CSI teams nor DNA technology is the ongoing question: where is Sam really? Is he in a coma, hallucinating everything? Has he died, and gone to a strange sort of police Purgatory? Or has he, somehow, been actually transported back to the past? Every episode leans toward a different explanation, and the present Sam was ejected from creeps in occasionally, through dreams, visions, radio broadcasts, or hallucinatory interludes. In the course of this, real questions, like the nature of reality, the hold of personal loyalty, and the existence of God, angels, and the spirit world are probed in a manner rarely seen on network television. LOM is quite simply one of the most intelligent things to appear on the little screen in a long time.

In testimony, however, to an age where things like The Bachelor and America’s Got Talent reign supreme, such a program had everything against it. It did not help that ABC put the show on two-month hiatus and then changed its time slot. On March 2, the network announced that it was not renewing the series. Fortunately, however, their High Mightinesses have deigned to broadcast all 17 episodes ordered, including a series finale (incidentally, that makes it a little longer than its British prototype, which, in keeping with rules prevailing on that side of the water, was actually two miniseries). Moreover, where it was revealed at the end of the BBC version that the British Sam had been in a coma (he commits suicide because of the emptiness of the present day compared to the 1973 of his dreams), his American cousin may end up differently. Of course, to be fair, the BBC is running a sequel, Ashes to Ashes, in which it is intimated that Sam may actually have gone back in time in reality, his return to the present being an illusion!

However it turns out over here, the show has forced this writer into an unpleasant position. Where formerly he simply regarded the decade of his teenage years with unmixed loathing, he has been forced to reconsider”€”apart from the fact that Middle Age does tend to bathe one’s happy adolescence in a golden glow. The truth is, that while, as a society, we were decaying, we had not gone as far as we have: the secondary stage of a disfiguring disease always compares well with the open sores and noxious abscesses of the tertiary. It is not too surprising that the English Gene Hunt has become something of a guilty pleasure among the more outwardly forward thinking of the British literati.

For the truth is that our current time really is very bleak, even compared with the era of double-knits and Cuban heels. Nostalgia is certainly no real answer to the ills that face us, anymore than mindless acceptance of the nostrums of the Head of State can be. Nevertheless, as J.R.R. Tolkien once observed, “€œit is easy to debunk escapism; but notice that the ones who do so are usually the gaolers!”€ In any case, we can hope that perhaps the Sci-Fi channel will come to LOM‘s rescue, as they did for the late lamented Sliders. However it plays out, for the next month at least, on Wednesdays at 10 PM, it will be, in the words of the immortal Carpenters, “€œyesterday once more.”€



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