I’ve been watching ABC’s Life on Mars since it premiered last year, and was totally captivated by the premise and execution. Then it was canceled (as most innovative programs are on prime time network tv) - but with sufficient lead time for the creators to produce a series finale intended to wrap up all the loose ends. (Spoiler alert for the following discussion.)
There is much screaming right now about this ending in the blogosphere, and I”m going to join my voice to that chorus. This series was great and this lame and sucky ending is a terrible injustice to a challenging and innovative storyline. Score a big FAIL for series creators Scott Rosenberg and Josh Applebaum. They flunked storytelling 101 with this one.
A Little Background
For those who may not be familiar, this is an Americanized remake of a hit BBC show. The premise is that NYC Detective Sam Tyler is hit by a car while on a case and wakes up in 1973. He can’t get back to his own time but has flashes now and then of people there. Is it a coma? Something else? He can’t get any immediate traction with his displaced-in-time dilemma and ends up having to live, work and function in a time and place where his own self-as-small-child also exists. In the course of things he meets his mother, his long-absent father, and discovers true love, all intertwined with police stories and case work. Includes exceptional performances by Harvey Keitel and Gretchen Mol, as well as Jason O’Meara in the starring role.
In the BBC series it becomes clear that he’s in a coma in his original timeframe. That series wrapped up with an emotionally fulfilling choice about what reality he decides to live in, and why he makes that choice. Bravo for them. Good storytelling.
No such luck in the American version, though.
The “Ultimate Ending”
Rosenberg and Appelbaum intended from the get-go that their version would end differently from the BBC one. “It was kind of in prep on the pilot that we stumbled upon what our ultimate ending was,” says Rosenberg. “We never did anything that wouldn’t be explained by this ending. And we also left clues along the way…” That was the ending they used. “It was going to be the same if it was the season finale or a series finale.”
So what is this ending, thought out in advance, that is supposed to wrap up a storyline rich with clues pointing in that direction? “There were names, numbers, all kinds of things” hinting at the truth of Sam Tyler’s situation:
It was all a dream.
That’s it, stripped of its set dressing. The set dressing that left a trail of ‘clues’ all leading to this: Tyler wakes up from his dream of 1973 and it turns out he’s part of the crew of a manned mission to Mars in 2035. They all had programmed sleep to while away the 2+ years of their journey to Mars, but there was a glitch in the computer that diddled with Sam’s intended dream of being a detective in 2008. That’s why he thought he was in 1973 instead.
We’re Not in Oz Anymore, Toto
Wizard-of-Oz like, the members of his crew are all people Tyler dreamt about, now with his waking self in the flesh. There is some effort here (including Oz tropes scattered throughout the series) to liken his experience to a Dorothean dream-adventure and awakening ‘back home’. Some fans have protested that the weak ending doesn’t matter because we’ve seen growth in Sam’s character. Others have said it’s not a dream ending bait and switch because there was character growth.
Let me point out the obvious: character growth is an essential part of the character arc, but that arc doesn’t happen solely in the final resolution of a story. In fact, there might not be any character growth in that final act at all. It isn’t essential to that act. What is essential in the climax and resolution phase of the story, is exactly that: a peak of tension, and its resolution in an emotionally satisfying manner.
To reduce this to a dream experience is incredibly shallow and emotionally unfulfilling. This ending makes the Life on Mars finale hardly any more satisfying than the “Bobby Ewing’s death was a dream” fiasco on Dallas.
Initially I was simply irritated at poor storytelling and thought, well, the show got canceled, they only had a short time to make sense of all the plot threads they’d planted and resolve it all. On that basis alone I’d give this a -5 for feeble resolution using one of the most trite cop-outs in all of storytelling-land. Then I read this interview with the creators and realized what I’ve quoted above: that this ending was not a last-minute scramble (which might have excused its weakness a little), but unbelievably was the fully intended “pay off” for the story arc. Planned. Embraced from the start - or in their words, “stumbled upon” – as the right ending to steer towards.
Oh. My. God. How could they even imagine that something that is so much tripe could pass for an emotionally satisfying ending for the audience?!? If I sound a little outraged, I am. My enchanted story-enjoyment bubble has been burst. I am gobsmacked by the magnitude of this Fail. If they claim that the Wizard-of-Oz trope was their guiding light, well – they nevertheless missed that beacon by a mile. One has to be very, very careful to avoid dismissing all that went before as a dream. In the Wizard of Oz tradition, even though those around Dorothy in Kansas experienced her sleeping, we-the-viewers are not entirely sure that her Oz experience was “only” a dream (and if your protoype for Oz is the book not the movie, it is even more clear that she really was someplace else.)
There is no such reassuring reality loophole with this Mars crew reveal, though: the explanations are too pat, the earlier cognitive dissonances too tidily dismissed. The magic and questioning of reality that has been Sam’s experience is quashed in a brutal 10 minutes of flattened drama and stalled emotional momentum.
Story death at its most ignominious. For shame.
This is made even worse because most of the final show was great. It is in the last 10 or 15 minutes that it all unravels. Now that I’ve seen this farce, I STILL want to know what really happens to Sam and Annie, and their cohorts. What’s the real ending here, the one we should have seen? The one that properly ties up the lose ends AND offers believable and satisfying emotional payoff? There is nothing worse than this kind of abortive end to a great story.
“It was just a dream,” my ass. This series rated an 8 on my quality scale for entertainment. It’s really hard to reconcile that with the -9 I’d rate this ending at (spared a -10 only because the acting and the dialog as such didn’t totally suck). Still, this is The Worst Ending Ever that I have seen in a show I’m a fan of.
Someone needs to be spanked for this.
1. For the record, I just want to say I’m not familiar with Mol’s work outside this show, but I think she did a wonderful portrayal of a smart woman in the boy’s club atmosphere of a 1973 police department, bringing layers of emotional depth to the role that surprised me in this character. Her portrayal was true to my own experience of being in a male-dominated occupation in 1974 (the Army) – and in a deja vu sense, except for the color, her dress uniform was eerily similar to my own, down to the pot hat and shoes. I really enjoyed her character, and Mol’s acting. Brava.
2. That’s a -5 on my -1 to -10 scale for bad writing. The bigger the negative number, the more it sucks.