I know I just talked about Life on Mars last week, but I'm revisiting it for two reasons. One: the season finale was just on the other night. Two: my pal West (who has an excellent, thought-provoking blog) commented on my last LoM post and sparked some thoughts I'd like to share.
I'd said something about not caring if the main character, Sam, ever got home and West wondered "if not caring if ol' boy ever gets home ever impedes the audience's emotional connection to the main character."
It's a good question and it clued me in that in talking up what the show's about, I hadn't said enough about its characters. My reply, reposted here for your convenience, was this:
"You know how in those old cop shows they always had the maverick detective bend the rules because it was the only way to catch the bad guy? And it always pissed off the Captain or whoever, right? Well, in Life on Mars it's the Captain (Gene) who's learned that you have to bend or break rules in order to be effective. He's a good man, but he teeters on the edge of being corrupt because it's the only way he can see how to do his job.
"Enter Sam, who's used to doing things by the book (as most modern cop-procedural show characters are). Not only does he have new investigative techniques, but he's he's also got an uncompromising sense of morality about how to do the job (you don't plant evidence, you don't make deals with one bad guy in order to catch a 'worse' bad guy, etc.). It's a reversal on the classic detective/Captain dynamic.
"Sam doesn't come across as sanctimonious though. Gene is enough of a bastard (though a likeable one) that you're right there with Sam whenever his jaw drops and his dander gets up over whatever Gene's doing now.
"Sam genuinely cares about other people and his wanting to do things correctly is born from that. You care about him; you're just glad that he's making the most out of his situation and not just obsessing every week on trying to get home.
"At any rate, it's the relationship between Sam and Gene -- and watching them come to respect each other's points of view -- that makes the show. (And just so you don't think it's all testosterone: there's also a possible love interest for Sam too.)"
The season finale -- which was more focused on Sam's trying to get home than your average episode -- also drove home something that's useful in answering West's question. When Sam is concerned about getting home, the audience becomes concerned with it too. Fortunately, that's not all the time or the show would get tired. When Sam seems to be acclimating to his surroundings and is just focused on solving a case or his relationships with his peers, we're focused on that too instead of wondering how the series will eventually wrap up. In other words, Sam engages us so much that we're happy following him around; doing whatever it is he's doing.
Can't wait for next season.