That's the intriguing premise of Life on Mars, a British series worth sixteen hours of your life on Earth.
Sam Tyler lays it all out in the credits. Is he mad? Is he in a coma? Or has he traveled back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like he's landed on a different planet. Now maybe if he can work out the reason, he can get back home. (Hee. Now that I think about it, Sam Tyler is rather like John Crichton. The credits are just like Farscape's! "My name is Sam Tyler. Et cetera, et cetera." I can't believe I didn't make the connection until now.)
In 1973, Sam, who in 2006 was a DCI (Detective Chief Inspector), is a DI (Detective Inspector) in a new team comprising WPC (Woman Police Constable) Annie Cartwright, DS (Detective Sergeant) Ray Carling, DC (Detective Constable) Chris Skelton, and DCI Gene Hunt. Annie is the cute friend/love interest who also proves her mettle as a female copper. Ray's basically an unsympathetic arsehole. Chris is the n00b who can barely pour his coffee straight. And Gene Hunt is made of big, blustering awesome. He's the sort of character who gets great lines like "Don't move, you're surrounded by armed bastards!" and "It doesn't take a degree in Applied Bollocks..."
Gene Hunt is a copper who plays by his own rules, but in the name of keeping the city safe. He's confident as all get-out, so he doesn't exactly mix well with Sam, who questions his every move. Initially, he seems to be as much of an arse as Ray, but he ends up being more complex than that, a paradoxical mix of brutality and pathos, integrity and corruption. Also, he's incredibly funny even though he doesn't mean to be.
What Life on Mars does brilliantly is work the fish-out-of-water theme on many levels. Obviously, Sam's a little out of sorts being thirty years in the past, because no one gets his pop culture references (see what I mean about Crichton?). But it's not just pop culture that's backwards, it's detectiving in general. Sam has to deal with solving crime without all those C.S.I. tools, without many of the investigative techniques he's grown to see as second nature in the fight against crime (like taping interviews, for serious). And he has to face the facts that in 1973, police corruption ran rampant, and his innocent Robocop views on the police fall on deaf ears. There are all kinds of ways Sam just doesn't belong in this world, and he's trying to bring sexyback.
But what of home? Although you can read however much ambiguity into his situation as you want (and I'm not spoiling you, as this is just how I felt from watching the first couple episodes), the show (and Sam) seems to come down pretty hard on the "in a coma" theory from the beginning, due to the fact that Sam can hear people talking over him. Another brilliant touch is that Sam doesn't just hear these voices in his head: he hears them on the radio. Or on the phone. Sometimes the television starts talking to him. It's damn freaky and really cool.
It's freaky and cool, but from the first couple episodes, I didn't see the point of it all if he was just in a coma making all of it up. What helped me enjoy the series more was rather than focusing on the time-travel premise, watch it as an entertaining 1970s crime drama with sci-fi elements. Because the show isn't about whether Sam is mad or in a coma or truly back in time. It's about Sam Tyler solving crimes with Gene Hunt and his cohorts. It's about Sam Tyler butting heads with Gene Hunt every episode because they don't agree on how to solve crime. It's about keeping your sense of self in a foreign world.
That's not to say the time-travel premise doesn't add a lot. Sam ends up running into a few people from his future. And Sam's constant references to things that haven't happened yet never fail to be amusing. And, I have to reiterate, the many ways the 2006 world seeps into 1973 are fucking sweet. There are times where it gets all metaphorical in fun ways.
For those into '70s music, the soundtrack is all period. The art direction and music choices really make you feel like they went back to 1973 to film. Oh, and speaking of sense of time and place: it's very, very British, with "Oi! Oi! Oi!" this and "guv" that and "plonk" this and "copper" that.
The creators wrapped the series up in two seasons, and the ending is pretty much lovely and perfect and exactly how the series had to end.
So Life on Mars is a great crime drama, often surreal and occasionally hilarious. I don't know that everyone would love it because it's a fairly narrow niche: take away the trappings, and the basic plot of each episode is "solve a murder" or "stop a kidnapping" or whatever. But it's the trappings and, as is the case with all good television, the characters that make the show stand out. It's not that they're all fifteen-dimensional, but they're a diverse team you like to see work together. I ended up loving the show, largely because Gene Hunt is a fantastic character who's fun to watch, and after settling in with a few episodes, I felt for Sam Tyler as well.
Because when the man in the television set starts talking to you...you listen.