Life on Mars and other archaeologies of the near past

Keitel I was home for the weekend, time to ransack my DVR for shows I’d missed in a week away.

Life on Mars was interesting. It feels like a companion piece to Madmen. Together, they are archaeological recoveries of the near past. (Life on Mars is set in 1973; Madmen in 1960.)

The similarities end there. After all, Madmen captures the stark simplicities of mid century modernism, that hustle economy driven by postwar prosperity and the upward mobility it made possible.

Life on Mars give us the great repudiation that followed the Madmen era, as the children of privilege embraced the experimental, alternative, egalitarian, and mystical.

If the two periods had something in common, it was that both treated women badly. In the place of the abused secretaries of Madmen, Life on Mars gives us a police-woman named Annie Norris. The guys in the station house call her “No Nuts Norris,” lest anyone fail to understand she does not belong there.

These shows take advantage of how much we have changed in the last 48 and 35 years (respectively). There is a certain amount of finger pointing. Look! They smoke! They drank! They ignored civil liberties! Our present circumstances may fill us with trepidation, but, in prime time, we’re free to indulge in scorn and self congratulation.

Life on Mars is a police procedural with a twist. The detective in question is a time traveler from the present day. This sort of twist is now standard in TV land. Life has a guy just returned from 12 years in prison. Raines (of sainted memory) featured a guy who talked with the dead. The police procedural has a new procedure. The Jack Webb character now always seems to consort with something other than the facts.

There is some really good writing in Life on Mars. Thanks to my DVR, I can report this wonderful snippet that takes place between stars Jason O’Mara as Detective Sam Tyler and Michael Imperioli as Detective Ray Carling.

Detective Tyler objects to bad treatment of a suspect.

What was that! That money wasn’t from the check cashing robberies!”

Detective Carling replies,

Yeah, and Roe vs. Wade aren’t really options when you find yourself on a river.

Tyler:   What does that even mean?

Carling:  It’s an analogy.

Tyler:  No, I don’t think it is.

Carling (somewhat hopefully): It’s like an analogy.

I laughed and laughed. It is impossible to imagine Jack Webb and his pal having an exchange like this. Steven Johnson is right. TV is getting better. (Hats off to writer, Bryan Oh.)

Then there’s the performance by Harvey Keitel as Lieutenant Gene Hunt.  You want authenticity, Keitel is your man.  This is bullet proof plausibility.  Keitel occupied his character so deeply, it’s hard to imagine how he finds his way home at night. 

Midcentury modernism took a blood oath never to repeat itself.  Fifty years later, popular culture dwells lovingly upon its recent past.  How interesting. 

We have no clear idea of what’s happening to us in the present day.  Even without the banking crisis, we are in the throes of ferocious change.  I guess it’s nice to the end the day with a trip through our collective photo album.  We may not know what we’re doing, but at least we don’t look anything like those losers drinking at their desks or wandering around in bell bottoms.  Call it serial superiority. 


For more on the show, go to the ABC website here.   

For more on the English origins of the show and the machinations it survived in Hollywood, go to the excellent story by Scott Collins in the Los Angeles Times here

The quote above is from the second episode of the series, The Real Adventures of the Unreal Sam Tyler.

 Post script

I am sorry not to have posted more often and more regularly. Loyal readers deserve an explanation.  The loss of my sister has taken something out of me. We were not close in any conventional sense.  We did not talk often or confidingly.  But I am reeling without her.  Not to worry.  It’s jut taking awhile to get back on pace.   

1 thought on “Life on Mars and other archaeologies of the near past

  1. Jairo

    Dear Mccracken,

    My name is Jairo Shim and I am from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
    I am in my last semester of college and I am graduating in Marketing and Advertising at ESPM, the best college in South America.(

    I would do appreciate if you could possibly send me your article, intitled “Who is the Celebrity Endorser”, published at Journal of Consumer Research in 1983.
    Your article is vital for my final thesis in order to get my bachelor. My theme of thesis is “The importance of using athlete’s celebrity in advertising for clothes and acessories”, for example, companies like Adidas and Nike.
    Not abusing from your kindness, would you recomend me any of your books or bibliography which I could rich my work?
    Thanks for your time and attention.
    Jairo Shim

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