ABC - 23rd October 2008 - 10.00pm
I wondered how long it would take the show to address the big social movements of the decade. It was a toss up whether it would be feminism, gay rights or black power. The UK series did attempt to tackle the emergence of black people in the police force but it rather shied away from those twin shibboleths of including gay characters and themes or the rejection of the incumbent bastions of male power by emancipated women. These subjects would eventually emerge in the sequel Ashes To Ashes. What's good about this episode is that this is the furthest that the U.S producers have moved away from the original UK scripts. This is the litmus test, if you will, as to whether the series can expand on the original and develop enough of an identity of its own to fuel more stories. On this evidence, clearly they can.
...it's still an interesting launch pad to start a discussion about gay identity, about visibility in the military and about violence against minorities.This starts out as an irony drenched view of anti-Vietnam politics and an exploration of the counter-culture of the late 1960s. That means 'hippies'. I found the idea that 'hippies' were still an important political force in an America of 1973 a bit of a moot point. The 1970s is, for me, the counter-culture comedown when the radical politics born in the 1960s began to wind down in the 1970s, when activists either committed themselves to party politics, developed social justice organisations, moved into identity politics or alternative lifestyles or became politically inactive. So 'hippies' frolicking in a New York park in 1973 is really a bit of thumbnail sketch. Never mind, because it's still an interesting launch pad to start a discussion about gay identity, about visibility in the military and about violence against minorities.
So, the story here is radically different from the UK episode three, which was essentially the death of a mill worker from faulty machinery and a further discussion of police methods. The peripheral material, of Sam going back to his home in 1973 and seeing himself with his dad, going to a football game, are lifted from the UK's episode five. It looks like they are committed to the overall arc of the UK's first series which will eventually bring Sam together with his father in 1973 but, more importantly, they are shrugging off the limited scripts of the UK version and now boldly going it on their own.
The narrative shifts from Vietnam 'freaks' being responsible for the murder of a war veteran and embraces a sting operation to reveal that the vet was actually gay and attempting to continue a relationship with another vet back home. I was worried that we were going to get 'the only good gay character is a dead gay character' trope, which is the tried and tested way of dealing with the subject matter but I think the episode managed to sympathetically avoid that, in the main. It also widened the issue by tackling homophobia in the workplace and the attitude of the police to hate crimes in the way that it focused on Ray Carling's character. Michael Imperioli was rather good in this as Ray and he's another example of how this version is defining itself. When Gene takes him to task (as Gene often did in the original series) for his complacency in solving the crime we do at last get to see a chink in the bullish armour of the man.
...it still equates, and portrays, being gay with a form of rape against straight men.It does reinforce some of the stereotypes when Gene and Sam visit the gay bar but, quite honestly, there are still a number of gay bars in New York that look and feel the same. It's no good ranting about negative stereotypes when in fact gay history and culture continues to be littered with them, many existing out of our own making. None of the gay bar scenes were in the least bit offensive and were subtly used to define the notion of gay versus straight concepts of masculinity, especially in the central cultural reference to Rock Hudson. Loved the 'gaydar' stuff too between Annie and Sam when she suggests to Sam whom the suspect might be. The only major issue I would have is that 'sodomy' is used as a threat to get information out of a suspect. The spectre of male anal rape is often trotted out in narratives like this and, in reality, a young straight man would be faced with that threat in prison but it still equates, and portrays, being gay with a form of rape against straight men. It's a cliche and perpetuates a myth that all queers want to get into the knickers of straight men. What the script should have done was shown a loving, gay relationship as a balance to that or at least had a line from Sam that would have disowned the concept. The proper gay relationship in the story was something that wasn't talked about enough and therefore you are given an episode that does not explicitly say that gay relationships are good or that gay men can actually be good parents.
All the regulars are great in this and there is a definite feeling of a proper ensemble finally getting 'it' and working together. The whole sting operation to flush out the gay basher is hilarious stuff with Annie, Sam and Chris getting a proper share of the limelight. And Keitel is working very hard to define his own version of Gene. We are not going to get anything like the Manc Lion in this series. He's much more Popeye Doyle of The French Connection than Glennister's reading of Regan of The Sweeney and trying to compare the two is futile. They are different men. There's a spectacularly wince-inducing scene in the Precinct interrogation room where Gene goes for direct violence in opposition to Sam's overt mental torture of the two young lads dragged in from the sting operation. Gene is vicious in that scene, very cold blooded, and as he belts one of the suspects with a chair you actually understand that Keitel is not going for cuddly irony here. His Gene Hunt is very scary.
...through Annie he sees the cold light of day, the rationale of not destroying a family by maintaining the closeted nature of the gay father figure
The wistful character of Windy also develops further and I get the impression that she's replacing the barman Nelson from the original series. Nelson did feature briefly in the first episode but this series hasn't picked him up and used him as Sam's metaphysical commentator. Rather, this role has now been assigned to Sam's neighbour and she is the 'spirit guide' giving him instructions on how to negotiate through this reality of 1973. She and Annie are perhaps opposite sides of the same coin - one a metaphysical and the other a more rational reading of femininity in the series. Through Windy, and her adherence to what seems like an Eastern mysticism, Sam connects with 1973 through the memory of his childhood and his absent father and through Annie he sees the cold light of day, the rationale of not destroying a family by maintaining the closeted nature of the gay father figure. That last scene is very debatable and does bring into question the consequences of 'outing' a seemingly straight man to the detriment of a father/son and husband/wife set of relationships. It makes the episode all the more interesting. Well written by Tracy McMillan and superbly directed by Michael Pressman, my only other bug bear was the often intrusive use of songs of the time in the middle of rather important scenes. But full marks to the producers for coming up with a story that the original series didn't tackle and almost seamlessly integrating it into the series milieu.
ABC Life On Mars site
Cathode Ray Tube Life On Mars US Episode 3 ABC