ABC - 5th February 2009 - 10.00pm
Now that is more like it. Why on earth didn't ABC open the season with this episode instead of last week's rather lacklustre affair? By this series' standards this up there as probably one of the best, if not strangely surreal, episodes to date. It picks up the bizarre mid-season cliffhanger and has a little fun with it. I suspect ABC have been switching episodes on us.
...the writers Bryan Oh and Tracy MacMillan seize the opportunityWhat's exciting here is the narrative structure. It has the flavour of The Usual Suspects as the story is recounted by the main characters whilst they are under investigation from internal affairs. This framing device also, intriguingly, loops back into the reasons why Sam is allegedly back in 1973. The producers hint at some dark plan that Sam is seemingly part of and that possibly suggests military brainwashing and covert surveillance rather than a fella that's slipped into a coma. This adds a refreshing dimension to the story, directly contradicting the established canon of the UK series. It's a move to be applauded as the series, whilst on the surface is conceptually the same, is at its heart quite different in tone. The narrative within a narrative and multiple perspective flashback of events gives the episode a tension and an edge that has been severely lacking and the writers Bryan Oh and Tracy MacMillan seize the opportunity to give the ensemble cast specific scenes in which they can shine and also add further dimensions to their characters.
Annie shows signs that she's starting to believe what Sam says
The biggest benefit of this approach is putting Michael Imperioli, as Ray Carling, centre stage in a sub-plot about his no-good brother Eddie (played by Eric Balfour) who gets him tied up in a robbery that seems connected to a series of gruesome decapitations and a big-wig Wall Street financier Donovan Stamp, played with delicious relish by Kevin Conway. This is told in a series of flashbacks but manages to present the Ray Carling character in very human terms. He cares for his brother enough to try and hide his felonies but in the end announces that he has given all he has got to Eddie to keep him off the hook, disowning him in the process. Imperioli more or less steals the episode, giving the kind of performance we all knew he could give. There is also a superb scene with Gene Hunt having a drinking contest with a local gang of Hell's Angels that also allows Harvey Keitel room to put some more flesh on his version of Gene. For me, it's a witty showcase that finally crystalises the nature of this version of Gene Hunt. Finally, the writers get round to moving the Sam and Annie UST forwards. Annie shows signs that she's starting to believe what Sam says after the shooting in the woods in the mid-season climax and there's even a tentative move to actually get a relationship going here too. Wonders will never cease. The chemistry between Jason O'Mara and Gretchen Moll is developing nicely and the scene where Annie bandages up a stripped to the waist Sam is full of erotic undertones.
This darkly surreal edge is a welcome flavouring
Yes, we do get to find out what all that business was about in the basement with the mysterious phone calls. It leads to Sam digging up a headless body and finding Ray's phone number tucked away in its pocket. The parade of headless victims is oddly gruesome in itself but then a very tall man with a burnt face turns up at the precinct to deliver a parceled up head and to offer a confession. This darkly surreal edge is a welcome flavouring and reaches a climax in the final scene where Sam receives another of his strange phone calls, clearly from someone in internal affairs who has a Project Aries folder on his desk where Sam's interview tape ends up. Project Aries? That was used in the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper where he finds himself 200 years in the future. Is Sam's return to 1973 a time travel experiment? Whatever the writers' agenda is, we need more episodes like this and less like last week's because, underdog that this show is, it has flashes of brilliance and shouldn't settle for dull cop-show pastiche when it can produce nuggets like this.
ABC Life On Mars site
Cathode Ray Tube Life On Mars US Episode 9 ABC