DVD Review -- "Life on Mars: Series 1"

Life on Mars
"Life on Mars," the original, UK series, lands on DVD in the U.S. for the first time.
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009; 12:00 AM

"Life on Mars," a police-drama with a sci-fi vibe that aired on ABC for a single season before calling it quits last April, had all the ingredients for a successful series: a fine cast (Harvey Keitel, Gretchen Mol, Michael Imperioli), an intriguingly offbeat premise (cop gets hit by a car, then appears to have jolted back to 1973) and a post-"Lost" time slot that made perfect sense for a show that deals with time travel and a protagonist with daddy issues.

But it never found an audience, perhaps because "Mars," very subtly, bore the whiff of something borrowed. Of course, that's because "Life on Mars" was borrowed from an excellent British series of the same name, the first season of which makes its American DVD debut today in a four-disc set ($59.99). If you saw the ABC version, or even if "Mars" is about as familiar to you as the terrain of the red planet itself, trust me: spending a few hours with the eight episodes contained in this collection counts as viewing time well-spent.

Even though the original "Life on Mars" debuted on BBC One back in 2006 (it has subsequently aired in the States on BBC America), the gritty, mind-bending story of Manchester investigator Sam Tyler and his struggle to find mental equilibrium still feels fresh, compelling and inventive. The drama's central mystery -- is Sam in a coma, dead, dreaming or did he really hurtle back to 30 years ago? -- makes the perfect hook for people who tear through TV shows on DVD every summer the same way avid readers burn through their beach books before the end of August. In other words, add this one to the pile.

One cautionary note: while the show and its stars -- particularly British TV vet John Simm, who effortlessly toggles Sam from his role as principled, cool cop one minute to that of lost soul in anguish the next -- are top-notch, the extras on the DVD disappoint. The commentary tracks that accompany each episode and feature insights from the show's cast and crew are occasionally informative, particularly when the creative team mentions the many series and movies -- from "Get Carter" to the '70s British cop show "The Sweeney" -- that influenced "Mars." But the documentary "Take a Look at the Lawman," contains an hour's worth of interviews, all shot in dimly-lit settings, in which the actors, writers and directors spend too much time droning on and on about character motivations.

Meanwhile, the featurette "The Music of 'Life on Mars'" -- which I assumed would focus on how such period-appropriate tracks by David Bowie and The Who were chosen for the soundtrack -- instead spends 14 minutes with composer Edmund Butt as he fiddles on a sound board to come up with the perfect mix for the show's theme. And yes, if that sounds about as exciting as watching someone else send a text message, that's because it is. Thankfully, the six minutes of outtakes add some levity, not to mention several amusingly botched lines of dialogue, to the otherwise overly serious special features.

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