Life on Mars (2006) s01e07

After a couple episodes not dealing too much with John Simm’s Sam Becket-esque attempts to get home, this episode brings that element in partway through an otherwise very straightforward whodunit about a dead prisoner.

The script’s from Chris Chibnall, who approaches it with quite a bit of gusto as far as giving the characters all something to do, though that something to do is because of the dead prisoner. There’s also some really nice direction from S.J. Clarkson, who doesn’t do it as a procedural. Simm is investigating—at the behest of Philip Glenister, who’d rather the whole thing went away but Simm’s making a stink—and running afoul of his fellow officers, including Liz White.

There’s a lot of character relationship building for Simm and the entire supporting cast this time, not just White or Glenister, but Marshall Lancaster, Noreen Kershaw, and finally some development with Dean Andrews. Until the whole thing becomes about Simm just wanting to get back home. Only White understands the reason for Simm’s question to destroy his colleagues, which ends up muddying the water more than anything else. If Simm’s trying to solve it because it’s the right thing to do versus what he’s got to do in order to wake up from his presumed coma….

Unfortunately Chibnall quadruples down on the latter, going so far as for Simm to explain to White he needs her to stick around to handle all of his emotional labor. Sinnerman over the end titles or not, it’s a rather wanting finish; somehow in the last twenty or so minutes of the episode, Chibnall identifies all the problems with the show’s conceit and drags them to the fore.

Really good acting from the entire cast, save maybe Simm, who’s good but nowhere near good enough to save it. On the other hand, it’s best in series acting for Andrews and Lancaster (partially because it’s the most they’ve ever gotten to do). Same goes for Kershaw, but in the extremis. She’s usually background. Here she’s essential.

And Glenister’s got some great moments. Especially when he and Simm have a working dinner, sort of precipitating the whole thing, but it’s all about Simm. When it’s about the investigation, it’s good. When it’s about Simm hoping it’ll be the leap home… it’s fine but rote.

The emotional labor demand scene is a particularly big strike against it, given White’s convinced Simm is gleefully willing to ruin her career.

Excellent performance from Lisa Millett as the victim’s sister; she disappears just when she ought to be coming back (corresponding to Simm trying to work the leap home angle). However, while Chibnall’s uneven overall, Clarkson’s direction is strong the entire time. She kind of saves the day.

Well, her and Nina Simone.

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