24 August 2006

Hanging A Lantern On Starsky and Hutch

I've been sporadically watching the first few episodes of the BBC series Life On Mars. Thoroughly modern Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler is investigating a serial murderer of young women, has just broken up with his girl friend and is burning out at work. His girl friend, who is also a detective, tells him that he used to have hunches, but now all he has is procedures. She goes off to follow up on a hunch, and is kidnapped by the murderer. In the aftermath, Sam fails to pay sufficient attention and is hit by a car.

Sam wakes up in 1973. His car and wardrobe match his surroundings. He is now a Detective Inspector, assigned to a CID Unit. The DCI in charge is nothing but gut and is resolutely old fashioned. The squad has been beaten down, more or less literally, and do things as the "Guv" wants. This is mid-70s policing at its most politically incorrect. Sam's insistence that procedure, patterns, forensics and blood splatters can help is dismissed as "gay boy" policing. Sam's insistence that the immigrant workers be referred to as the "immigrant work force" leads to lots of eye-rolling. Sometimes Sam's modern knowledge helps, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's just irrelevant in a world in which the simplest lab report takes two weeks to come back.

The show pretends to be a psychological study in which we must choose among three alternative. Sam is from 1973, but is crazy. Sam is from 2006, but has really traveled back to 1973. Sam is from 2006, but is hallucinating while in a coma after his car accident. There are long internet debates on which is right, along with coy internet comments from the writers and producers. In truth, nothing about the show could matter less.

Clearly, the producers wanted to remake Starsky and Hutch. Sam and his DCI charge around in a hot car. They drive backwards down one way streets and do 360s. The DCI threatens, and sometimes beats, witnesses and the accused. They jump over desks and run out after the perps, they get in gun fights and fight each other and other cops. It's a 1970s cop show about the by-the-book cop and his wild streetwise partner made to the production standards of the oughts. But you simply can't do that sort of show in the oughts -- if you try to do it without irony. Thus, the po-mo solution to the politically correct problem is to hang a lantern on it: this is not a 70s cop show, it's a show about a 70s cop show, complete with a point-of-view character who is so detached that he's not even really there, or maybe just not all there.

The 70s scenery is fun, the characters are interesting, the mysteries are good enough; I recommend the show to those who get BBC America (Mondays at 10:00 pm).

A note: Margaret Thatcher, at the time Education Secretary in the Heath government, hangs over the show like an anvil, unmentioned but inevitable.


Anonymous said...

sounds like a reaction to the current lawlessness in the u.k.

a manifestation of popular discontent with the left-run government machinery.

Brit said...

I've never actually got round to seeing Life on Mars, but what else do you get on BBC America?

If you get any of Planet Earth, the new Doctor Who or that adaptation of Bleak House they did recently, watch them.

All terrific - and momentarily eases the pain of seeing them spend our license money on the anti-Bush propaganda they call 'news'.

Oroborous said...

I saw the pilot episode of Life On Mars, and enjoyed it greatly. If I had the time to watch more fictional television, I'd definitely follow it.

The plot was a bit spotty, but I liked the feel of the show.

Oroborous said...


Cash in the Attic, Footballers' Wives, some show where they re-landscape someone's yard as a surprise to one spouse, and Coupling.
All of the important ones.

Brit said...

Oh dear God.

We get all your best stuff on our terrestrial channels (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, House, South Park etc); and all your crap (America's Next Top Model, variants on America's Funniest People Falling over Animals Gone Wrong 7, etc) on satellite and cable.

Unfortunatley, the missus loves all the crap. It's a bone of contention.

David said...

Here's the BBCAmerica website. There seem to be an astonishing number of shows where people redo rooms in their house, or rooms in other peoples houses, or revolving around antiques one way or another. The first season of the new Dr. Who just wrapped up on the Sci Fi channel.

Brit said...

There are an extraordinary number of shows about people redecorating their homes on all our TV channels. Can't get much more British than piddling around with your house or garden of a weekend.

The weirdest thing though is the way you Americans lap up Benny Hill. He was briefly very popular here, but as far as I know his shows were never repeated in this country. They certainly haven't been in the last 20 years anyway, and he's all but forgotten in his native land.