Wow. I'm sure glad we didn't have to wait seven years for that ending to the U.S. version of Life On Mars. At the same time, it was certainly interesting, and unexpected. Awaken to spoilers!
The funny thing about last night's series finale of LOM was that, if it had been a season finale instead, I would have been totally hooked. All of that stuff with Sam finally visiting the mysterious town of Hyde, only to find it an eerie ghost town, was really interesting and grabby. And the bit where Sam decides he doesn't want to go back to 2008 after all seemed to be going somewhere really cool.
If they'd gotten a second season, this episode would have ended with some kind of mysterious cliffhanger, right after the part where Sam slams down the phone and says he doesn't to go back after all. And I would have been like, "I can't wait to see where this is going!"
Instead, we know where it was going. The producers were very clear that this is the ending they always planned, and if the show had ended after five episodes or 200 episodes, this is the ending they intended to give us. Which is... interesting.
At first I felt incredibly cheated — it turns out that Sam and the gang are all astronauts on their way to Mars, and they're in a virtual reality simulator that gives them whatever dream they want. (Ray spent the two-year trip believing he was on a deserted island alone with an army of Darryl Hannahs, and a retinue of castrated men.) For some reason, Sam wanted to spend the time dreaming he was a police officer in 2008, but the program went wrong due to a meteor shower.
The more I think about it, the more I think this isn't quite as pointless as it first appears. The whole show, retroactively turns out to have been about Sam's daddy issues. So he's working out his issues with his fictional 1970s father, who's an abusive crook, as a way of working through his issues with his real dad, Major Tom (Harvey Keitel). For some reason, his 1970s dream also included Keitel, but as a father figure rather than as an actual father. Both the 1970s fictional dad and the 2030s real dad have the same snake tattoo, which is meant to reinforce that one is a proxy for the other.
How does this play into the whole business where Sam (aka Luke Skywalker) is going over to the dark side? I'm not honestly sure... there's a hamfisted thing in the clip above where the random old guy with Baby Maya makes a comment about how she "missed 'er Hyde." ("Mister Hyde!" Get it? Get it? Nudge nudge.)
Of course, the British version was sort of about Sam's daddy issues as well — both shows did the episode where Sam and his dad play sports together, and then Sam realizes his dad is a wrong gee. But if I remember correctly, Sam's dad drops out in the second British season, and it's much more about Sam and Gene.
In the end, I'd say this American version of the series will end up being a bit of a footnote to the British one. This version didn't have quite as much to say about society, and how it's changed since the 1970s, and especially what we expect from the police. The themes of abuse of power, and how that abuse can be a powerful fantasy for a "civilized" man from 2008, got muted quite a bit as well.
Instead, what we ended up with was an odyssey towards father-son reconciliation. The main problem with that, as with all things about this show, was really Keitel, who's been the show's weakest link since day one. Just look at this episode, where he spends the whole hour being a teddy bear and offering fatherly advice to people. (I did get a bit choked up when Annie got her promotion though.) Just imagine if they'd actually gotten someone with Philip Glenister's brass to carry that role instead! (And I hate to say it, but I don't think Colm Meaney would have worked either.)
So yeah, it was an extended holodeck episode. But it was also more than that. I'm still trying to decide how much more. What did you think?