Producers sound off on Life on Mars' cancellation

You have to give credit to ABC for trying to shake up the norm on television. Programs like Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone, and Life on Mars would never even get in the front door at the other major networks--but ABC embraces quirkiness. Unfortunately, the TV industry is a business, and original ideas and quality writing don't always translate to profit.

Life on Mars is the latest casualty at ABC, but thankfully, news of the show's demise came before producers Scott Rosenburg and Josh Applebaum finished writing the season finale. Because of this, the two were able to tie up the show's loose ends and deliver a complete package, rather than just going dark. We caught up with Rosenburg and Applebaum to discuss tonight's finale and get the story on what happened behind closed doors. When did you find out that Life on Mars was not going to get picked up, and how did that change the production process for you?

Scott Rosenburg: We were crafting the 17th episode, and we always knew what it was going to be. It was a big culmination episode for us in a lot of ways. We knew the ratings were grim, and we went to ABC and we said, "Look, we know the ratings were grim." We always knew what our end point was for a season finale and for a series finale, and we basically said, "Listen, we have this thing, and we'd love to be able to shoot two Act Six's, you know, one for a series finale and one for a season finale." And they came back to us and they said, "You can do the series finale." We were like, "Okay, but what about the season finale?" And they were like, "Just do the series finale," and that was a pretty good indication right there.

But it's not something that [networks] often do. They usually wait 'til May, but it was a general true affection for the show in the executive's suites at ABC, and because of that they let us actually wrap it up--because it just would have sucked to be cancelled and to have the 17th episode and all these cliff hangers. And now it exists as a complete thought. It's got a beginning, middle, and an end. So the finale does have a full resolution. We will see exactly what's going on with Sam.

Scott Rosenburg: Yes. Yes. Did you have much more planned out in case you were picked up?

Scott Rosenburg: Well, the order was always going to be 17, right, Josh?

Josh Applebaum: Yeah, for this season, for sure.

There were obviously ideas kicking around the writers room and stuff in our heads, but we were just, as with every TV season, we were just thinking about getting to the finish line for season one, and then we'd worry about season two when we got there. What can you tell us exactly about the finale?

Josh Applebaum: I think the starting point has great velocity--essentially in very short order Sam's mother, who we'd met before, comes into the squad room and basically says that her husband has returned and he's taken little Sammy. So the thrust of the finale from that point on is Sam Tyler. It's Jason O'Mara having to save his younger self. See, he's having to save himself both literally and figuratively, and that's kind of the drive and the finale and that keeps us going up until our conclusion. I enjoy the show a lot. It was one of my favorite new shows of this season. But I was wondering with the scheduling conflict--you changed time periods and ultimately ended up behind Lost--do you think that may have had something to do with the show not succeeding, or do you think it's something that American audiences just weren't ready for?

Scott Rosenburg: I think ultimately what really hurt the show was that it was just so wholly original, and there was nothing like it on television yet. I also just don't think it was necessarily the right fit with that network. I think if it was on HBO, we'd be running for 20 years, and we'd all be rich. And I'm not even joking. I really do believe that. I give [ABC] all the credit in the world for putting it on, but it was a very strange show for network television. I don't watch a ton of television, but in the last couple of weeks, just because I was so curious as to what people are watching, I checked out a few of these "hit" shows, and I was like, "Of course, they cancelled us." [Bizarre], nobody talks this way. Nobody jokes this way. Nobody--it's the music and the whole--I mean, I couldn't be prouder of Life on Mars. I'm so proud to be associated with it, but at the same time I get why it didn't play in, you know, Toledo. The original UK series ran, what was it, like 8 episodes?

Scott Rosenburg: It was 16 all in all. Two seasons of 8. They like to do things shorter over there with seasons whereas the U.S. likes to stretch them out to 22, 24 episodes. Do you have an opinion as producers as what the right way to do it in television is?

Josh Applebaum: I think each show is different. I think obviously you want to--as the producer, and the writers--you want to be able to continue to live with these characters and tell these stories and be on for years, but in the case of Life on Mars now that we know these 17 episodes are going to be what it is--there's something kind of cool about that ... [And you] look at this DVD set that will be relatively effort free to watch. It's 17 hours. It's not like you're getting that big nine-season box set and it was something else. It's like, "Boom. Here's Life on Mars," and you can experience the whole thing in a weekend as opposed to over the course of a year. My favorite part of the show is anything that comes out of Detective Ray Carling's mouth. I think he has some of the most original and fun dialogue I've seen on network television in years. What went into creating his character and how did you pull the writers aside and say, "You know, Carling would say it this way," or what.

Scott Rosenburg: It was so amazing writing for him, because he could plot anything. I actually found myself towards the end trying to challenge him, by literally coming up with the most f***ed-up s*** in the world. Once you really start to know their voices and know what they're capable of, it was great fun to write for them. We gave [Carling] a huge monologue at the end of Wednesday night's episode. [I] couldn't wait to write it, couldn't wait to hear him, and everybody was looking forward to it, everybody and the crew and the cast. I just remember when he did the first take everyone applauded because it was--[Michael Imperioli] is a virtuoso. I think I'm going to miss it so much, writing for that guy. And I know Michael really, really loved playing him. He really did, and I know he's going to miss him too. My other favorite aspect of the show was the gratuitous, almost vaudevillian violence. Was there any concern about--for example, Harvey Keitel coming in and slamming a guy's head on a table. Or did you know that everyone would take it as just fun?

Scott Rosenburg: We got a little bit of a hall pass because it was 1973. So, they really didn't come down too hard on us with that stuff, Josh, did they?

Josh Applebaum: No, they were pretty [lackadaisical]. By the way, on Wednesday night's episode, not just from Harvey but in general, I think we upped the violence. Amongst other things, the violence quotient in that episode--we might outdo ourselves, whether or not that's something to be proud of. What are you going to miss most about the show?

Scott Rosenburg: I keep saying it every time, I mean, it was a really, really hard show to make, but I never ever walked on to the set or into the office and felt anything less than inspired, because I feel like we were doing something that was so wholly unique with these amazing actors. And it's that world, being able to spin those tales in that world. I miss it. I said the other day to somebody, "I can't believe I'm never going to type the words, 'Gene Hunt turns to Sam,' ever again. I mean, I may, like, The Shining, like Jack Nicholson, just type it over and over again. As producers, it's one thing, but as writers, it's like missing a limb right now when you really, really love writing for characters and actors and you don't get to do it any more. Well, I, too, am going to miss this show dearly. Thanks a lot for talking to us.

The series finale of Life on Mars airs tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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