Back in the early 70s, I'd sometimes sit in my parents' room and watch The Avengers on their old black and white TV. It was cheeky fantasy really, a strange alternative world of crime-fighting keyed by the visual cues of a bowler hat, an umbrella, small guns, and Dianna Rigg's tight leather pants. I'm not sure if the show actually ran in color on Channel 9, but I watched in shades of gray and all the world of that Great Britain seemed to live in those hues. The 60s had already swung by the time the series ran in America, and it seemed like a relic - a fun relic, to be sure, but ancient.
I was thinking about The Avengers when I tuned into the new BBC drama Life on Mars, whose premise is a lawman's strange return to the world of 1973 in grimy Manchester, whose monochrome backdrop is tinted a stready flavor of grimy red brick. From the whirlwind opening, when a chance traffic accident sends Deputy Inspector Sam Tyler into a netherworld - he "lives" as a police officer in 1973 but is occasionally drawn to his hospital room in 2005. I could go on about the premise, but I won't; it's complex and in some ways, the facts don't matter.
What matters are the superb performances, the groovy soundtrack, the wardrobe brillance (all cheap leather, chains, and wide polyester collars), the sets thick with cigarette smoke, and the wonderful enveloping sentimentalism for the 70s. The moral center is provided by DI Tyler's nemesis, an old-fashioned bruised-knuckle copper as played by Philip Glenister, whose rutted face is like a crinkled motorway roadmap. His corruption and real-world venality root the weekly episodes in the kind of fertile acting loam that produced Ian McShane's brilliant Al Swearengen.
The men smoke, booze, beat up suspects as they please, and grab ass; the women don't seem to mind. Oh, the nostalgia - keyed by the soundtrack, which opens with Bowie title track and has included (thus far) pitch-perfect choices like Live and Let Die, Jean Genie, and Lou Reed's I'm So Free. I'm totally hooked. Or as Bowie said:
Take a look at the lawman
the wrong guy.
Wonder if he'll ever
He's in the best selling show.
Is there life