Over Labor Day weekend I marathoned my way into catching up with what BBC America's aired so far of Life on Mars. I'd watched the first half of the pilot a while back and wasn't sure if I was going to like it. I generally run out of patience with shows that have closed concepts like this one.
If you don't know what it is, it's about a police detective who's hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. There's a lot of evidence that he's actually still in a coma and just imagining being back in time, but he can't understand the level of detail in his new world. The premise of the show is that if he figures out exactly what happened to him, he can get back to his own time.
The problem is that -- like The Prisoner or Gilligan's Island or Star Trek: Voyager -- you know that he's never going to figure it out and go home until the show's over. That gets old unless there's something else to keep you coming back every week. Take Lost, for instance, with its focus on the characters' pasts and relentless sense of mystery. You don't care if the characters never get home, so long as the island stays interesting.
Same with Life on Mars. I've been itching for years for the kind of detective show that I grew up watching as a kid. Something along the lines of Mannix or The Rockford Files or Magnum p.i. These days it's all C.S.I. and Law and Order, with the focus on the procedure rather than action and mystery. Because it takes place in the '70s, Life on Mars is exactly what I've been longing for. No computer models to re-enact crimes, no dusting skin for fingerprints, not even any cell phones to keep the police in constant contact with each other. And the genius of the show is that -- through Sam, our "time-travelling" detective -- it acknowledges that crime prevention in the '70s was archaic at the exact same time that it's embracing the fact. We're allowed to roll our eyes at it even as we thrill to the car chases and fist-fights.
Every episode, there's a little reminder that Sam's got a larger mystery to figure out, and we're gradually collecting pieces of information that will help us do that too. But like with Lost, I'm finding that I don't really care if he ever gets home. I don't want it to end.