In a rare instance of mutual forethought and cooperation between producers and a network, ABC's Life on Mars will wrap up its abbreviated freshman run this Wednesday at 10 pm/ET with a proper series finale, bringing to a close Detective Sam Tyler's time-tripping odyssey. Here, executive producers Scott Rosenberg and Josh Appelbaum reflect on their Mars journey, reveal the one song that done them wrong, preview the "straight-out scary" follow-up they have planned, and promise closure for fans of their previous project, October Road.
TVGuide.com: The episode airing this Wednesday, is it more or less what you had envisioned the series finale as being? Or is it slightly different, if only because you had less time to build up to it?
Josh Appelbaum: We always knew that the season finale was going to be this episode, and we always knew what our series finale would be. Basically we went to [ABC] and said, "Our ratings are grim. We want to shoot a series finale and a season finale; the only difference is Act 6." They thought about it for three minutes and came back to us with: "We've got good news and we've got bad news. The good news is we will let you shoot your series finale. But we will not let you shoot a season finale." So [you'll get] big reveals instead of a bunch of cliffhangers. And we had planned the best [Season 1] cliffhangers, too! [Laughs] But they will now never be seen.
TVGuide.com: Since the original BBC series itself had a short run, did Life on Mars lend itself to a sooner-rather-than-later wrap-up?
Appelbaum: They're doing versions of this [show] all around the world now, and there's a spin-off on the BBC, Ashes to Ashes. I think the concept has the potential for great longevity. The BBC wrapped theirs up for, like, contractual reasons. In our case, it was unfortunately about "Wrong time, wrong place."
TVGuide.com: What can you reveal about the "three tasks" Sam must complete to return to the present day?
Appelbaum: The jumping off point is that his mother and father come back into this episode in a big, big way. His mother comes to the station house and says that his father has reappeared and kidnapped a little boy. So, basically, Sam has to save himself, as it were. And it goes from there.
TVGuide.com: Did you come away from this experience with any new "cautionary tales" for writer-producers?
Appelbaum: Don't fall in love with your show, because it will leave you. Television shows, I find, are like women.
TVGuide.com: In today's day and age, it seems near-impossible to affect "course correction" once ratings start trending down.
It's a great tragedy. There's definitely a bit of a 'box office mentality' to television now, where if it doesn’t 'happen' in the first couple of airings, you're doomed.
Scott Rosenberg: We keep saying that with this mentality, there wouldn't have been some of the great shows in television — Hill Street Blues, Seinfeld, on and on. A lot of those shows didn't come out of the gate strong, but people were able to stick with them longer and let the audience build. Unfortunately, we're not living in that climate anymore.
TVGuide.com: Was working in a guest role for Jason O'Mara's real-life wife, Paige Turco (playing a comely childhood neighbor of Sam's), always part of your Season 1 plan?
Appelbaum: She was always part of the plan. It's like, wow, what a great resource to have! You never know what kind of chemistry they're going to have when they're a real-life couple, but they were great together.
TVGuide.com: Turning to the music of Life on Mars, was there any one song you wanted to use but simply couldn't get cleared?
Appelbaum: We write every song into the script, not after the fact, because the music is so important. And only one person denied us.
Rosenberg: Because he thought the show sucked. [Laughs]
Appelbaum: It was Episode 6, and Sam describes when he met Maya (played by Lisa Bonet) for the first time. He flashes back to the scene and "Tom Traubert's Blues" is playing. It was so good. Tom Waits approves all of his licensing, and he sent an email saying he thought the show was [bad]. It was pretty funny.
TVGuide.com: What's next for you two?
Appelbaum: We're doing a [pilot] called Happy Town, for ABC [and revolving around a small town rocked by a horrific crime].
Rosenberg: It's got a really cool ensemble [including Jay Paulson, Amy Acker, Dean Winters and Robert Wisdom]. We're all huge fans of Twin Peaks and the Stephen King novels, and hopefully we can create a world worthy of those reference points. There hasn't been a straight-out scary show on TV in years, and hopefully this will deliver.
TVGuide.com: And with the October Road Season 2 DVD, fans will finally get their epilogue?
Appelbaum: Yep, it's coming out the first week in May. Everybody [from the cast] was back.
Rosenberg: You'll find out who Sam's father is, where everybody ended up in terms of relationships... It's a nice little wrap-up for the fans. They finally will get their answers!