October 30, 2008

1973 called

The Times weighs in on Life on Mars. Here's one of the studio execs: "The wardrobe, the hair, the music, the buildings — it honestly is a kind of an amazing reproduction of the era.

Honestly, it's kind of not. I'm still enjoying the show for what it is, but I feel less and less comfortable that it's going to hang together. It just doesn't feel meticulous. Think of last week's hippie squat party, complete with Indian guru. In a show like, say, Lost, this would be a clue: it's so clearly a hack pastiche of the early 70s that it can only mean Sam is assembling this world from his imagination about the era. Here, though, you get the sense that it might just be a hack pastiche.

There's some speculation that Sam isn't in the 1970s but in a 1970s cop show. That's fun. And there are moments in each episode when the camera angles and music stings suddenly mimic Baretta et al. But most of each episode feels much more like a 2008 cop show (or a 2004 one, frankly). Layers of mystery... or just sloppy?

One little thing that stuck in my craw last week was Michael Imperioli's line to one of the hippies: "1969 called, it wants its dashiki back."

Did that "Year X called, it wants its Y back" put down really exist in 1973? I ran it by Radosh.net lexicological correspondent Jesse Sheidlower who traced it only as far back as 1992 (to a Saturday Night Live skit called Sidewalk Insults, suggesting that it was at least a novelty at the time). He adds, "In 1996 and 1997, it's still being held up as an example of a new expression, so I'm reasonably confident that if it was in use in 1973, it can't have been too common."

I wish Life on Mars felt smart enough to believe that this anachronism was meaningful. But it doesn't.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I wish [it] felt smart enough to believe that this anachronism was meaningful. But it doesn't.

I've been feeling the same way about the GOP's unleashing the full panoply of retrograde '80s-90s wingnut attacks on Obama.

No way anyone said "1969 called..." in the 70s. I will guarantee it. (That does, for some reason, remind me of one of XTC's first songs, from 1977, mocking a girl who is "so square" and "nowhere" because she's still into all the things that were up-to-the-moment-hip in 1967.)

But I really only commented to ask, what is it with you and David Bowie today?

The financial crisis has decimated my Bowie Bonds.

I think part of the unease I feel about the U.S version of the show is the lack of any certainty that the central mystery will ultimately be finally resolved. Because of the way American T.V. works, it seems to me that it is much more likely that the series will simply be cancelled at some point, leaving the show's loyal viewers unfulfilled.

The U.K. version had a definite and discrete story arc planned out for Sam, one that unfolded in the space of 16 hour-long episodes in total.

I think it must be difficult for the writers and producers of the current show to deliver a product that consistently "hangs together" for both of these reasons. Sustaining the tension and mystery around the central conceit of the show in a coherent way with meticulous consistency has to be much more difficult in the American show simply by virtue of the number of screen hours that need to be filled, and the uncertain placement of the "finish line". I would suggest that the answer to your question, then is likely "sloppy - but with an excuse."

Certainly stories unfold differently when you switch from a set number of episodes to an unlimited run. But while that changes the dynamic of the plot, I don't think it has to undermine the central conceit. The comparison with Lost, or even Heroes, is instructive. Lost has had its share of subpar episodes where things seemed a bit meandering. And Heroes had an entire crappy season, among other problems. But even at their low points you never got the feeling that the mythology wasn't being treated scrupulously.

Or to your point that unlimited series inevitably fail to sustain tension (cf, X-Files, Twin Peaks): even if true good shows should work really well for a season or two before things start to go wrong.

To the extent it all takes place in Sam's head, the show can get away with anachronism galore because it is Sam's fault, not the writers'.

@Charles. Of course. But my point is that whether or not it's all in Sam's head, this anachronism doesn't remotely feel like a clue. It just feels like the writers fucked up. And it feels that way partly because LoM feels like the kind of show in which writers are allowed to fuck up.

Is this when Ron Rosenbaum weighs in with an endless comment about Nabokov?

One of the reasons I eventually lost interest in the BBC version (after about eight episodes) was that I never really felt like there WAS any ambiguity about what happened, and the production never really took seriously the possibility that any of this was real. They pretty much showed you the autistic kid with the snowglobe in the pilot. And so it was tough to care too much about any of it.

Because American television IS more open-ended (for better or worse) I was hoping they would play out the mystery of what was actually happening to Sam much more than they have.


I disagree somewhat with your point that the duration of the series need not undermine the central conceit. It seems to me that if the central mystery revolves around a simple, essentially binary choice between "Sam's in a coma" or "Sam's really time-travelling", there is a finite shelf-life to the period for which any viewer's interest will be retained. After a certain amount of time assessing the various clues that have been dropped, most viewers will want the plot to be advanced in some way towards a resolution. Hell, even on "Cheers", Sam had to hook up with Diane because that "will-they/won't they" dynamic couldn't go on in perpetuity.

By contrast, if the central mystery is not a binary, but rather a multiple option question, the shelf life of the dynamic expands simply because more time can be expended dropping the clues and red-herrings that relate to a greater number of possible outcomes; it takes longer to advance the plot because the plot is more complicated.

Thus, the extended duration of the American series demands, I would argue, a more complicated central mystery.

The problem for the writers, though, is that too much complexity means that the viewer can't get engaged in the story at all. At a certain point, complexity becomes a substitute for plot advancement, and the viewers will rebel because they know that what they're being fed is just another series of loose ends that are only the beginning of another mystery, and that they are not a bit closer to any resolution. In the end, the writers must find a balance point, one where there is sufficient complexity to retain the viewer's interest, but also enough movement towards a resolution of the story. It is no mean feat.

I do not mean to say that it is impossible to write such a story and do it well; I am merely suggesting that the degree of difficulty inherent in pulling off the trick successfully is much higher.

"Lost", I think, may prove my point in this regard. I confess that I stopped watching entirely after the third season, so my experience with that show is somewhat limited. I agree with you that "Lost" had/has a different, more scrupulous, feel about the writers' attention to detail, but the show lost me because - to my taste - it became excessively complicated. Rather than progressing towards any understanding, I felt that it was an endless parade of mysteries that might be scrupulously consistent with one another, but which did nothing to advance my understanding of what had happened to the characters and why. The show was so intent on creating and maintaining a sense of mystery, in fact, that it seemed to me that most of the time the writers opted to have the characters silently glare at one another "meaningfully" (leaving the viewer to try and puzzle over the characters' motivations and intentions) rather than having them - ever - simply speak their mind. It was too much; I couldn't take it and I packed it in with that show.

Junior - I agree that a prolonged run may be a problem for LOM. The show is premise-driven, which is harder to sustain than a show that is character-driven or plot-driven.

I just caught up on the last 2 episodes of the US version. I definitely preferred the BBC charcters. The BBC Sam Tyler was less confident and more disoriented, which made Sam's predicament more believable. And Harvey Keitel's mindset seems too modern and enlightened for his character in 1973.

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