The TV equivalent of a page-turner, the BBC’s latest impressive twist on a tired genre hinges on a compelling mystery woven into an old- (and new-) fashioned cop drama. The audacity of the concept — a modern-day detective inexplicably thrust back into the long sideburn and bellbottom days of the early 1970s — keeps “Life on Mars” lively, elevating standard cop-and-bad guy fare to a mind-blowing, almost surreal level.
Starting in the present day, there’s a quick introduction to Sam Tyler (John Simm), whose colleague/ex-girlfriend Maya (Archie Panjabi) is abducted by a killer he’s stalking. Abruptly, a car strikes Sam, and he awakens in 1973, where David Bowie’s titular song and similar rock relics provide the soundtrack.
Is Sam in a coma? Insanely hallucinating? Or has he somehow traveled back in time? Beyond that, what are those strange sounds he keeps hearing, like a life-support machine, and how can it be that the new case he’s following — an abduction in the ’70s — somehow overlaps with the one he had been pursuing in his own reality?
There are no answers in the first two episodes, only a tantalizing series of questions and false starts, as Sam gets absorbed into a ’70s precinct where he finds it hard to function without his “mobile” (or cell phone, for Yanks) and can’t believe it takes two weeks to process forensic evidence.
Series co-creators Matthew Graham, Ashley Pharoah and Tony Jordan have fun with these anachronistic and nostalgic references, down to Sam’s Neanderthal of a boss, Gene (Philip Glenister), who delights in roughing up suspects as well as his own inspectors. Ultimately, though, what pulls the show along is the nagging question of where this Sam has “Quantum Leap”-ed to, how he got there, and whether he can return to his own era in time to save his ex.
Those threads, as well as the little clues littered along the way, keep the audience on edge despite the fact that Simm is a rather bland, listless lead — and that relatively little distinguishes his new environs, beyond the hair and wardrobe. As such, it’s a perfect limited-series premise, inasmuch as the show would grow tedious without the prospect of a payoff by the conclusion of its eight episodes.
That template also perfectly highlights how British drama capitalizes on its short-order format, allowing for the kind of engaging ideas that couldn’t be readily teased out for years on end. As is, though, “Life on Mars” has the makings of an intoxicating treat, proving how far a little atmosphere can go in breathing life into a format that occasionally appears close to flatlining.