Thursday, April 2, 2009

"But the film is a sadd'ning bore - 'Cause I wrote it ten times or more..."

[UPDATED with expanded rantyliciousness!]

If I had a favorite tv show this season, I'd have to pick the late and lamented US version of Life on Mars. I know that I was in the minority on that score, but I found it a compelling, well-written show with memorable characters. And now, with its all-too brief life now over, I find that I might have had good memories of it if not for the ending.

Fair warning: I'm planning a lot of spoilers in this entry. If you missed the finale and plan to catch it when the dvd box set hits the shelves, or hope and pray that it turns up again somewhere deep in the cable channels, then I'm about to wreck your day. Again, fair warning.

He woke up, and it had all been a dream.

I don't care how you cute it up with lines about "President Obama and her sister." They made the whole series turn out to be the controlled hallucination of an astronaut in the future on his way to Mars.

To find life, of course. After all, how better to illuminate your cryptic show title than bogging it down with clunky literalism? Don't get me started on how Gene went from being a father figure to Sam's actual father.

He woke up, and it had all been a dream.

Anyone who's taken a creative writing class in high school knows that you never, never, never end a story like that. It renders everything that had happened before to the characters entirely moot. Sam saving his mother? Annie finally getting her detective shield? Ray getting relucatntly dragged into the 20th Century? Everything Gene Hunt did in every episode (yes, I have a favorite; Harvey Keitel was clearly relishing his role as the 125's boss)? Fuck you, fans, it never happened. It's like the producers wanted to punish those of us who stuck with the show for not dragging more of our friends in front of the tv.

And that's a shame, because I loved this show. I loved the music. Not just the classic rock but also the pitch-perfect "1970's cop show" incidental music that almost had me expecting to see David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser pulling up in a red-and-white Ford Torino. I loved its setting, at the dawn of the darkest period of the last century for New York City. Talk about a plot-rich environment. What would Sam had done when faced with a case that had, in our time, already become infamous? Would he be able to bust down David Berkowitz's door and haul him off before the "Son of Sam" could claim another victim?*

I'm going to miss this show, but I can't forgive that hokey ending. It was just pulled out of left field and to me reeks of lazy writing. I mean, did he hallucinate the parts where he wasn't in the scene, too? Just before the wakeup Gene sets us up with a line from The Wizard of Oz, giving us a warning of what's to come a second before it happens.

But here's the thing: Dorothy woke back up in Kansas, where she had started, a day after she'd left. If The Wizard of Oz had ended in the same way that Life on Mars had, Dorothy would have woken up as an undergrad at UC Berkeley in 1969 coming down from a bad acid trip. Not only was Oz the hallucination, but so was Kansas, the place to which she had spent the entire movie struggling to return! To heedlessly chuck even that basic plot element for a tacked-on "twist" ending violates an unspoken agreement between the viewer and the creators.

We want our stories to have meaning. Whether they end tragically, triumphantly, or enigmatically, we want those endings to be worthy of the trials of the characters we have followed this far.

Whoever gave this ending the final go-ahead needs to be dragged into Interrogation for five minutes alone with the lieut.

* - Yes, I know, 1977, not '73. You get my drift, though.

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