DVR Break-Up: Life on Mars
This is what happens when you add a show to the season-pass list almost solely because you think Michael Imperioli is incredibly foxy with the long hair and the mustache (and about the long hair: it's amazing! so shiny!) (shut up don't judge me).
It's not enough, which is a shame, because the premise of Life on Mars is pretty good, and the end of the last episode before I gave up did give me a tingle because of the phantom-caller thing going on. I almost gave it another chance, but in the end, I couldn't get past two things: the music, and the writing.
The bludgeon-esque music cue is not unique to LoM; any show that so much as goes to a flashback is guilty of over-reminding viewers of the time shift by using a contemporary song. I can't really watch Cold Case anymore because of it, I didn't like it when Journeyman did it, and LoM's music coordinator never doesn't make the clichéd choice: the song is always one a present-day viewer will recognize, never a more obscure track; it's always got on-the-nose lyrics that pertain to Sam's situation; and it's often playing over dialogue, to no point, to remind us again that it's 1973, which we know because everyone's wearing polyester flares and leather blazers and drinking on duty. The show also loves to let Sam introduce characters in 1973 to stuff that doesn't exist yet — hip-hop, high fives, you name it, someone has given Sam a strange look for mentioning it (or for introducing himself to his own mother as "Luke Skywalker" — all the references in the world, and they go to the one that's the most played out).
But I could have let that go if the writing worked. It doesn't.
It's to the ensemble's credit that it took me a few episodes to notice (with the exception of Harvey Keitel, who is bad, delivering his lines as though a PA is shouting them to him from off-camera), but the dialogue is too clever for its own good and at the same time not clever enough.
I've started watching the West Wing reruns on Bravo, and maybe it's different when you don't watch two episodes a day; the dialogue might not seem so self-congratulatory when you get it in lower weekly doses. I like the show well enough, but after a while, all the characters sound the same, all smart and righteous and self-deprecating and verbally nimble…except when one of them has to play dumb to let another one lecture on an issue for the benefit of the audience.
It's egregious at times, but usually, it gets over, because Sorkin and company do know how to keep things moving; the dialogue is frequently pompous and/or overwrought, but the pacing keeps it afloat, and enough happens plot-wise that it doesn't get bogged down. Life on Mars wants to make certain points and draw certain parallels, and sometimes you have to have your characters speechify in the service of that because you can't get it done any other way, but you can't lean on that every time, and you can't weigh every conversation down with significance, or self-conscious cutesiness. You have to modulate.
This writing team doesn't appear capable of doing that. The initial meet-cute between Sam and Maya — uch. Nobody talks like that; she's immediately obnoxious. Every interchange between Sam and Dean Winters as his father read like the S.E. Hinton version of how men talk, and the entire episode is structured amateurishly. Just once, I would like someone who has actually had a gun pointed at him come in to consult on scenes where the characters yammer on for a year and a half while aiming pistols at one another.
The show relies heavily on flashbacks to things we just saw 15 minutes ago, so that we can see Sam putting the pieces together, and we don't need it; we also don't need to see his lips moving as he figures out the puzzle of the week.
Sam also has what seems like constant contact with people he knew as an adult in 2008, and he actively interferes in events that took place in his own family. I get that it's unclear why he's in '73 or whether he can go back, but I've said it about other shows and I'll say it again — even if the characters don't know how messing with the time continuum could play out, the writers should have that nailed down at every corner before they even start.
It's not horrible; it's just that, partway through the last ep, I realized that, while I wanted to know what happened, I didn't want to have to watch the show to find out.
Tags: Aaron Sorkin Cold Case Dean Winters Harvey Keitel Journeyman Life on Mars Michael Imperioli Product Break-Up The West Wing TV