The “Life on Mars” season finale begs think pieces about its failures. Not the direction; S.J. Clarkson does a great job. Not the acting; everyone’s good, though not really great because it’s such a bad story.
To wrap up the mystery of whether series lead John Simm is living in 1973 and experiencing hallucinations he’s a modern-day police officer in a coma imagining he’s in 1973, is in a coma and imagining 1973, or has somehow travelled back in time.
Now, the show doesn’t resolve the couple times Simm’s past actions have had present day repercussions and there’s never any serious suggested of time travel. So either it’s very likely to be the coma thing. And this episode, written by—oh, of course it is—Matthew Graham, is going to walk everyone through these possibilities like we’re watching the second or third episode of a miniseries. Meaning everything after the first episode of the first season… not important. There’s a reason there hasn’t been any character development over the second season; because there’s no season arc. It’s just been some soft two-parters—like this one, which has Ralph Brown return and tell Simm a whole bunch of hard truths about Philip Glenister and company—but they’ve been done-in-ones.
And now, the finale, which quickly drags Simm through a subplot about actually he’s had head trauma and is imagining all the future stuff (meaning the viewer’s existing in the imagined future too because we’ve got shared pop culture references, including a very bad Robocop one this episode, which should’ve been fine but Graham ruined it because of course he did). Now, there are all sorts of sight gags referring to previous episodes, which all imply some or most of the show has been entirely imaginary and a complete waste of time.
Then it turns out that entire subplot is a waste of time.
What’s so impressive about Clarkson’s direction is the way she doesn’t let the obvious narrative inertia of the script slow things down too much. Simm’s got what should be a really difficult part—especially when he keeps trying to pressure Liz White into sleeping with him—but ends up being fairly simple and digestible. Graham’s solution for the series’s puzzles and riddles is to do a couple obvious things, one of them a little more craven than the other, and wrap things up.
Only… it’s not like they’ve been wasting time about Simm investigating the reality of his reality the whole series. He’s only done it the first episode and this episode; everything else in between has been too slight. So there’s no rewatch quality to the episode itself. It’s just trying to justify itself.
It’s a disappointing finish, of course. Still a great cast, still a great production. Still funny. Graham doesn’t write the best jokes, but they get great deliveries.
But it’s just a bigger finale letdown than I remember.
Recasting Simm’s mom is a major failure.
Not even Clarkson can make that one work. Nor Simm for that matter. He’s got some highs and lows this episode; Graham’s script gives him so very little.
But, you know, it could’ve been worse. There are some really bad moves and some okay enough ones. There’s some nice character interplay, with everyone getting a second off of sorts.
They really just needed a good show bible; they needed some character development; they needed Joanne Froggatt. But even without, “Life on Mars” is a good show, one with a mildly annoying finish to a middling second season. Great performances. Great production values.
Anyway. It’s not good but it’s a very terse fine. Clarkson does a great job. The actors do what they can with what they’ve got.
And you’re not left wanting any more “Life on Mars,” which seems to have been the goal of the second season.