From the commentary on the TV blogs, you'd think last week's rushed "Life on Mars" series finale was downright heretical: A lot of people were irritated that Sam Tyler, the guy trying to figure out why he'd been cosmically booted from 2008 to 1973, was actually an astronaut in virtual-reality hibernation in 2035.
"Ripoff!" complained stung fans of the canceled sci-fi police procedural. Why, they demanded, did we invest our time and emotion in characters who, in the end, turned out not to exist?
Huh? It's not as if the 1973 and 2008 "Life on Mars" characters DID exist. At least the one-season show got to achieve some semblance of the vaunted American outcome of "closure" rather than the left-me-hanging feeling that has accompanied the demises of so many interesting TV series in recent years.
Here's a short list of fledgling television dramas that have expired prematurely and inconclusively in the past few years: "Deadwood." "The Riches." "John From Cincinnati" (though some would say that was a good thing). "Jack and Bobby."
Even the previous series from the "Mars" creative team, "October Road," ended in confusion. The show, an elegiac piece about high-school buddies negotiating the adult world, fell to the ratings ax before anyone found out which of the male leads was the father of the female lead's little boy.
Call it Narrative Interruptus: the way the market-driven arena of American television, with its habit of speedy cancellation, leaves us feeling as though the characters we care about are left in perpetual suspended animation with their lives unresolved much like Jason O'Mara's Detective Tyler in "Life on Mars."
In a country where stories are everything, where one of our chief global exports is the Hollywood ending, this is not an unimportant debate. All these unfinished fables? Seems downright un-American.
The brouhaha over the "Life on Mars" ending is an interesting case study. At first glance, the fierce comments seemed to be about the show itself. But they were also about the delicate balance forever demanded of Hollywood that Americans want tidy resolutions, but woe be the producer who makes things too tidy.
Fictional shows and many "reality" shows, frankly create their own self-contained universes. They operate within the rules of their worlds, and that makes them feel more authentic. "Life on Mars" captured its viewership by making reality elastic. The rules were always fluid and the ground was always shifting. Why shouldn't it shift tectonically cosmically, even in the end?
And here's another theory about some of the "Mars" finale irritation. Much of the most popular modern American fiction which these days is more TV and movies than books serves as a comforting influence on us as viewers. Shows and movies that succeed often do so because they reaffirm to us that our expectations matter.
Thus, the good guy gets the girl. Evil is punished. The alien invasion gets repelled. The child in peril is saved. Order is restored. This was actually enshrined in writing in the Hays Code, a series of moral rules that governed the movie industry from 1930 to 1968. Crime could never pay, and the bad guy could never be the hero.
But with endings such as that of "Life on Mars" and, more famously, "The Sopranos" in 2007 conventional expectations are obliterated. That unsettles people; the notorious, ambiguous cut to blackness in the final scene of "The Sopranos" triggered loud outrage from people who said it was a "cop out."
Same with "Mars": Some viewers may have simply thought an ending that went from the streets of New York in 1973 to orbit around Mars in 2035 was stupid fair enough but others were probably left off balance because it didn't all end in the comfort of home, i.e., present-day reality, as they expected.
"Our lives lack the smooth arc of drama's acts," essayist Norman Solomon wrote last year in the literary journal Memoir (and). "Actual memory is on the chaotic side: tangled in innumerable shades of gray and color, with double and triple and quadruple exposures, and moments that are uncountable." Sounds a lot like the plot outline for "Life on Mars."
Funny thing is, it's the untidy, interrupted narratives that stick with us more than the neatly resolved endings. They tease us with the hint of stories yet untold, as if the characters we came to care about still exist and are muddling their way through more challenges. We just don't get to see it.
Maybe Al Swearengen is still pulling the strings of Deadwood from the balcony of the Gem Saloon. Maybe Wayne and Dahlia Malloy of "The Riches" are still running the big con down in Louisiana. Maybe John from Cincinnati did actually turn out to be the second coming of you-know-who. Maybe Nick and Eddie and Hannah of "October Road" are still in Knights Ridge, still trying to redirect their lives. Ambiguity may mean frustration, but it also means possibility.
So, too, "Life on Mars." Even with its big reveal, it still went dark with the possibility of unfinished business and the hint that many loose ends remained untied.
OK, so Sam Tyler's foray into 1973 New York City didn't "really" happen, and neither did his "real" life in 2008. And yet, for the Sam of 2035, they kind of did. The whole experience is stored inside the character who watched it in his head, and we are to believe that he carries it with him as he tries to figure out the rest of his life.
How's that for a metaphor for the American television experience? As Sam's cop colleague, Detective Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli), says, "There ain't no answers. There's just this."
Ted Anthony covers American culture for The Associated Press.