Life on Mars. Episode 5—”Things to Do in New York When You Think You’re Dead”

TV Reviews

Whoopi Goldberg was the much-publicized guest of this week’s Life on Mars, but while it was fun seeing her as Brother Love Butter, the voice of the Black Liberation Army, she wasn’t what made this the show’s best episode yet. (In fact, her motives for helping Sam were the muddiest thing about the show.) Part of the fun of any time-traveling fantasy is to ponder how someone with the knowledge of 2008 would briefly react to other eras. But Life on Mars digs deeper as Sam Tyler is stuck in 1973 and settling into his life there.

The plot revolves around the tragic death of a nine-year-old black girl. Witnesses saw Angel, the building’s Puerto Rican super, push her off, but the truth is more complicated. Of course, everyone—the cops, the neighborhood, the BLA—want justice, not truth. Only Sam and “Clams,” a black detective from a neighboring precinct—who also happens to be the young version of Sam’s mentor back in the present—are trying to find Angel to arrest him and not shoot him. At one point, they’re kidnapped by the BLA and Sam has to do his best Vanilla Ice impersonation to keep them from getting killed.

But that’s all just the background for a deeper look at where Sam is. He tells the priest helping Angel that he hasn’t believed in God since his father left when he was a kid. He prayed he’d get to see him again and tell him goodbye, but the answer actually comes this episode when he gets to work with the man who was a real father to him. This world of 1973, it seems, is some sort of purgatory, a spiritual dimension while his body remains in a coma. He’s even somehow present at Clams’ funeral back in 2008, where he encounters an “angel” who hints that he might already be dead.

In the British version, the cause of Sam’s jump to the past was always more enigmatic. If Sam is indeed in some kind of purgatory, this episode made “the mystery” surprisingly obvious. I just hope they’re not dumbing things down for an American audience. That said, the theological questions raised made for a great single episode. The question is, where does it go from here?

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