I don't really have an interest in cop shows. Most of them confine their characters to merely going through the motions with no real insight into how the crimes they investigate affect them. Those that take that kind of leap include shows like The Last Detective and A Touch Of Frost, which are made over in the United Kingdom and should be the template for how you make such a tired genre interesting. The original Life On Mars, which ran for two seasons on BBC One, gave this kind of character depth with a nifty little science fiction twist.
The show centers around Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm) who, while investigating a killer in modern-day Manchester, suddenly finds himself sent back to 1973 Manchester after being stuck by a passing car in 2006. Unsure of whether he really is in 1973 Manchester or merely in a coma, Sam incorporates himself into a time completely different (in fashion and in crime-fighting) from the one that he came from. As he tries to discover the truth of why he is in 1973, his place of employment is now run by a completely different individual, Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister), a thuggish, beer-guzzling kind of cop who has no problem saying what he feels or belting a suspect (or Sam) when he feels it's necessary.
Rounding out his team of co-workers is the slightly aloof Detective Constable Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), the "Gene Hunt in training" Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), and the soft-spoken but strong-willed Constable Annie Cartwright. Of the group of people that Sam often has conflicts with, Annie is the one who is the most likely to dive into the rabbit hole with his rants about being from the future and 1973 not being real.
I couldn't really describe for you what this series is actually about. In one sense it is about Sam Tyler trying to figure out the why in his predicament. In another sense this series is about finding your place. Although there are many instances where Tyler wishes to go back to 2006, as the episodes progress he develops a close tie to his 1973 surroundings.
Phillip Glenister's Gene Hunt was often the popular point of the series during the show's two-season run on BBC One. His politically incorrect way of speaking and handling suspects is at times cringeworthy, but adds an extra flavor to the more politically correct, moralistic views of John Simm's Sam Tyler. I almost thought at one point that the two could have been brothers. Sam certainly acts like the good-natured little brother, while Gene acts like the super cool but bullish older brother.
Some of the episodes try to infer that Sam is really in the past as several people who were important to his past become part of of his investigations. In the fourth episode, Sam discovers that his mother (in 1973) is being bullied by a local mobster. In the last episode of the first series, Sam discovers that his father (who disappeared when he was a child) is a suspect in a murder. This thread of Sam's past coming to greet him repeats in the second and final season.
It's been suggested that Life On Mars could have gone on for a third season. I personally feel it needed another season at the time the show ended. After thinking about it for a while, I have decided two years was enough for this kind of plotline.
The Series 1 DVD box set comes with a nice little set of special features that include audio commentaries on each episode, a documentary on the making of the series behind the scenes, an interview with Bharat Nalluri (who directed some episodes of LOM), a featurette with Ed Butt (composer for Life On Mars) and a featurette with Brian Sykes, the production designer for the series. If you like watching actors mess up, an outtakes reel is included as well.
Life On Mars is a bizarre cross between a cop show and a sci-fi drama. A good bizarre at that. The quality of the original series makes you wonder why the ABC remake sucked.