The showrunners just starting the prep for their last episode of the season when the official word came down from the network. "Life on Mars" would not see a second season.
As much as ABC execs from Stephen McPherson on down love the show, the math just didn't work. The long-gestating U.S. remake of the hit Brit series garnered mostly strong reviews (certainly from this space and from Variety's Brian Lowry) but it hasn't been able to draw a crowd, despite the benefit of landing ABC's two best drama lead-in slots, behind "Grey's Anatomy" in the fall and behind "Lost" for the past two months.
The "Mars" masterminds -- showrunners/exec producers Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg -- were just starting to get ready to shoot episode 17, the last of their order, in late February when the final call was made. There would be no second season of psychedelic adventures for Sam Tyler, the NYPD cop who mysteriously finds himself transported from Gotham 2008 to Gotham 1973 after getting hit by a car in the line of duty.
But the news was not all bad. In a sign of ABC's affection for the show, "Mars" was not yanked immediately. The show has been allowed to finish Tyler's journey through deep-seated emotional traumas that scarred 4-year-old Sam in '73 in ways that grown-up Sam has largely blotted out.
"It was a gift that Steve gave us, creatively to finish out the show and to have that closure for the audience," says Nemec.
It wasn't that hard to turn the script for the season finale to the series finale, set to air April 1. Because they were already building to a big revelation, they wound up rewriting the second half of the script to fully explain the "Mars" mythos and enlighten the loyalists on what's been going on and what becomes of Sam.
(Pictured above, "Life on Mars" stars Michael Imperioli and Jason O'Mara shooting on location in Gotham.)
Cracking the ending and the what-it-all-means factor was the biggest challenge the three showrunners faced in taking over the show last year from David E. Kelley, who was the first to acquire U.S. rights to the BBC hit and develop it for ABC.
Although it was a remake, Appelbaum, Nemec and Rosenberg felt strongly that they couldn't stick to the Brit ending -- which revealed it to be Sam's comatose dream, with a final fan-pleasing twist -- because it wouldn't hold much suspense for viewers familiar with the much-lauded original series (it's aired on BBC America and has been available Stateside on DVD).
ABC gave "Mars" a series order last May but recruited Appelbaum (pictured left), Nemec (pictured right) and Rosenberg (pictured below left), who at the time were coming off another ABC drama, "October Road," to retool the show considerably. While they were reshooting the first seg, the trio hunkered down with their staff writers to work out the central Sam mystery, so they'd know what crumbs and clues to scatter along the way.
"I didn't want to be at a sci-fi convention five years from now and have someone ask 'Why didn't you ever explain that thing that happened in season two,'" Rosenberg says. "We needed to know our end point early on so we could drop hints along the way and never veer outside anything that couldn't be explained."
Advance planning was also important to the trio because "October Road" got the ax after two seasons before they had the chance to wrap up key continuing storylines. Although "Road" wasn't the same kind of deep-mystery as "Mars," it still was source of frustration that viewers were left hanging with incomplete plot threads. (ABC Studios eventually let them film a 12-minute epilogue for "October's" season two DVD set.)
"When you see you see the ("Mars") ending. as much as I think it'll be wildly unexpected, it's also sort of the inevitable," Appelbaum says. "Even in the pilot there's a lot of things that are leaning toward what the ending tells you. There were a million ideas thrown out early in the writers room, but when this one landed we all knew that was the one it should be."
Hmmmm. Big hints all the way back to the pilot? It's got to have something to do with the girlfriend in 2008, Maya, a fellow cop, who Sam pines for in 1973.
"We're not only answering the why of 1973 but more importantly, it's what this whole journey was about for Sam -- why it was these particular characters and this emotional landscape," Rosenberg says. "It's his emotional heroes journey that is answered by the end."
The "Mars" troika -- who at present are in Toronto working on a new pilot, "Happy Town," for ABC -- won't give anything up, but they confirm that the five primary characters in the series will be present in the finale. That's good to know, because two of those characters -- the detectives played by Michael Imperioli and Jonathan Murphy -- were gunned down by a fugitive Irish mob boss in the closing moments of last week's seg.
The storytelling in "Mars" has been consistently solid, but it's the cast that put the show over the good-to-great high hurdle.
Jason O'Mara (pictured right) has shined in the lead role. He's handled the fantastical stuff with ease -- i.e. when TV announcers start addressing him by name and referencing his predicament, or a suspect taunts him mysteriously with the lyrics to "Over the Rainbow," or when he sees a tiny robotic device crawls out of a suspect's bullet wound -- and essayed the emotional anguish of being a stranger in a strange land. And it doesn't hurt that O'Mara is easy on the eyes.
It's also been a treat to watch Harvey Keitel live in the skin of a complex character, precinct boss Lt. Gene Hunt, for months at a time. At first Imperioli, who plays staunch New Yawker Ray Carling, a rival of Sam's for glory in Hunt's eyes, and Keitel (pictured left) seemed showy but after a few episodes they gelled in a way that added an inch of icing to the cake.
Gretchen Mol, who plays uniformed police woman Annie Norris (it's no accident that she has the Angie Dickinson hairdo), and Murphy (pictured below at far left), who plays cub detective Chris Skelton, were allowed to develop their characters at a slower pace that suited them and the storytelling. Annie is Sam's only confidant about the time-travel business so it's a cinch that she'll have an important role in the finale.
Part of the fun of any period piece are the contrasts, explicit and implied, between then and now. "Mars" has milked it in clever ways, from having Sam use aliases (Tom Cruise, Luke Skywalker) that are unrecognizable in 1973 America, to raising eyebrows among his colleagues with his predictions of the future (like Watergate), to weightier observations that indicate how attitudes and mores have changed, or not, in 35 years.
One of my favorite bits was a brief time mash-up moment where Sam walks into the precinct and out of the corner of his eye sees a TV set with the sound turned down playing footage of Barack Obama's inauguration. Sam does a double-take and says, to no one in particular, "He won?!," and then quickly moves on. (Sam is plagued by visions that the others in '73 don't see. That's one reason by Carling's nickname for him is "Spaceman.")
The task of having to recreate New York of a long-gone era became an unexpected source of bonding among the show's production staffers. Set dressing items and props to invoke the early '70s were contributed by all manner of crew members, Rosenberg says.
"There was something about the period element and the science fiction element that made every crew member and every department head feel like they were a big part of making this show," he says. "The crew was devastated when the word (of cancellation) came down. You'd think we'd been on the show for seven years together."
The silver lining in saying goodbye to "Mars" sooner rather than later is the assurance of quality control, the showrunners acknowledge. The original Brit series ran 16 episodes over two seasons in 2006 and 2007.
"The one thing we've been able to console ourselves with now is that this thing exists as a complete thought," Rosenberg says. "A lot of the themes and motifs that we deal with in the 17 hours we would not have been able to sustain over many seasons. We like the idea that five years from now, we'll be able to give the DVD set to a new friend and say 'Here, go have a great weekend. Watch this.'"