Perhaps one of the most significant ways to look at the life and ministry of Jesus is to view it as a proleptic vision of the coming kingdom of God. In a sense, Jesus’ life is a theatrical trailer for a coming blockbuster. The themes of this blockbuster are love, liberation, salvation, inclusion, forgiveness, and equality over against the oppressive power structures of the past and now. Jesus’ life and teachings image another way, a better way, of living. Of all places, I have found a parallel story in a new television cop series, Life on Mars.
American television producers rarely do British imports a good service. Oftentimes, British humor or situations simply cannot translate. Of course, The Office has been a notable exception. This year’s Life on Mars is quickly becoming another one. The story involves Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), a New York City detective in 2008. Working a case, he is hit by a speeding car and knocked unconscious. He wakes up in New York City, but instead of 2008, it is now 1973. Tyler is as confused as we are as to how and why he has arrived in 1973, but he quickly settles into his detective job in Precinct 125. His co-workers believe that he is just a transfer from another precinct uptown. Tyler’s work is frequently interrupted by flashbacks to his youth and what appears to be intrusions from the “other side.” We quickly assume that Tyler is in a coma because these audible intrusions are heart monitor beeps, doctors’ voices, and the voices of his girlfriend/partner Detective Maya Daniels (Lisa Bonet) and his mother, Rose Tyler (Jennifer Ferrin). In more recent episodes, he has begun to see himself in hospital soap operas lying in a bed with Mya and his mother (both in ’70’s garb) sitting beside him.
For the first few episodes, I tuned in to watch two of the actors, Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti of The Sopranos) who plays Detective Ray Carling and Harvey Keitel who plays Lieutenant Gene Hunt. They provide great humor against Tyler’s confusion and embody all of the status quo’s of 1970’s New York. However, as the season progressed, some of the episodes began to deal with issues like homophobia and racism. In these cases, the “backwards” thinking of Tyler’s colleagues often shocked him, not to mention the lack of updated police procedures and technology.
In these interactions with his colleagues, specifically Ray and Hunt, Tyler brought with him his more “evolved” 2008 worldviews, for example his unwillingness to tolerate hateful public displays of racism and homophobia. In one instance, Tyler continues to investigate a case even though they discover the victim died as a result of a gay bashing. Ray laughs off his decision to not follow the case any further, “What’s one less fruit anyway, right?” In another case, Tyler refuses to believe that a Puerto Rican man pushed a little African American girl off the roof of an apartment complex even though the racial tensions between these two groups was in a state of extremely high tension. In a way, Tyler becomes a vision of what the world should look like and what it eventually will look like in 2008. Rather than being some morally superior character or teacher, Tyler’s vision, his future way of being, when enacted by his colleagues, actually helps solve cases, often uncovering the motives behind the crimes they investigate or pointing to the correct identity of the criminal.
But, like the proleptic story of Jesus, there is a complexity here as well. Tyler struggles with and sometimes falls victim to the “present ways” of being like anger, violence, and racism. Of course, we as an audience living in 2008 know full well that the world is not a perfect place. Despite our claims to Jesus’ earthly perfection, we can read cases where he succumbed to the status quo as well, perhaps most explicitly in his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). Nevertheless, this series has lead me to question the ways in which we participate in the status quo’s of society and how we can change our thoughts and actions to image a better, future reality, and in so doing, bring about its existence.
Life on Mars is an entertaining series with great acting and an incredible 1970’s soundtrack that thankfully eschews disco. Though the creators obsess over the theme song, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” a bit too much in the first few episodes, they take a break from it, and it eventually becomes a welcome re-addition in latter episodes. Even if you have missed the original broadcasts of the first seven episodes, you can view them online at abc.com. Life on Mars is currently on a break, with a fantastic cliffhanger no less, until the end of January when it will return with another chapter of all new episodes.