Josh Appelbaum and Scott Rosenberg—executive producers of ABC's recently canceled time-jumping series Life on Mars—offered SCI FI Wire a few exclusive thoughts on how the show will end its run on Wednesday with the series finale, "Life Is a Rock," at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (Spoilers ahead!)
The producers also ruminated on why the show failed to find a larger audience, the differences between their version and the original BBC show on which it's based and the new pilot they're filming in Toronto right now. Following is an edited version of our exclusive interview with Appelbaum and Rosenberg.
I know a lot of people are upset that Life on Mars is airing the series finale. When did you guys find out about the cancellation?
Appelbaum: We had two endings [for the first season]. We had an ending for the series finale and the season finale in mind, and we asked if we could shoot both. And that would give us a little more time, and you can see a couple more air dates and how the ratings were. But we really got a sense that things were looking grim. So we said, "What do you think?" Because we had done this show called October Road prior, and it got canceled before we could wrap up some pertinent questions. And we didn't want to have that happen again. So we asked, and word came back that "We have good news and bad news. The good news is they will let you shoot a series finale. The bad news is they will only let you shoot a series finale." So it was quietly devastating.
Tell us about the final episode ...
Rosenberg: Basically, this episode was always going to be the season finale, so we just switched things up towards the end. But we always wanted it to culminate with him and his parents. ... Amongst our favorite things that we did was always with his father and his mother. Every time we went to that well, it really worked for us. You'll realize when you see it Wednesday night at 11:00, you'll see that the whole theme of the entire 17 hours was all leading up to this. It was all about what we deal with in episode 17.
Of course, you guys knew what the ending was in the original BBC series Life on Mars. And you had to make a decision about whether or not to do the same thing. Is this the same ending you originally planned?
Rosenberg: Different ending than the BBC ending, for sure. But we did know from the first week that the writing staff was assembled, and we were all sitting around trying to figure out "Where is this going?" We kind of came up with a notion of where we wanted to end it. ... When you see the ending in this, whether you love it or hate it—and I'm sure some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it, as they do with series finales—it's very honest. Meaning we've been laying in clues, building up to what this ending is for the past 17 hours. For sure.
Knowing the ending to the BBC series, which is very sad, I have to ask this: Do you think American audiences can take the same sort of ending as British audiences?
Rosenberg: I think that they probably ... I don't know. ... That's a really good question. I mean, who knows? They certainly didn't take the series. That thing was a huge hit there, and, God knows, ours wasn't. Who knows what they could or couldn't take? We'll never know, because ours is so different from theirs. It really is. It's not that we were worried about what they could or couldn't take. It's just that we had planned to be on for years and years. And anybody with Wikipedia could go look up Life on Mars BBC and find out what the ending is. You know? So we always said from the beginning that we had to do something different. And we just followed the pattern. We never did anything that we couldn't explain in the wrap-up. We never diverged.
The BBC did a spinoff called Ashes to Ashes. Did you ever have any plans to do that as well?
Rosenberg: In our dream world, if this had been big hit, it would have been fun to have spun it off, if the original creators were interested. In this world, now, ... they don't do many spinoffs of failed TV shows [laughs].
Well, you certainly have some loyal fans. There were petitions, etc. How gratifying was that?
Rosenberg: It was great. We always say that. We've done these two shows, which have had an incredibly loyal fan base. Which is so amazing. But at the same time, it would be nice just to have a hit [laughs].
What do you think it was? The hiatus?
Rosenberg: The hiatus didn't help. I think, at the end of the day, it was the wrong show for the wrong network. A little bit of not enough science fiction for the science fiction people, not enough of a cop show for the cop-show people. The bottom line about the show was that it was like nothing else on television. It was so uniquely original, and those things usually have to be given time. In this world that we live in now, there is very much a box-office mentality to television now. If you don't come up with huge numbers from the gate, you don't last too long.
Appelbaum: It's also, and this is a more pedestrian answer, but the title is a tricky one as well. The title and how it reflects on what the show is. I mean, you see that title come up on your TiVo, and you think, is it a Discovery Channel documentary? A flat-out science fiction show? A space-station show? So it might have confused audiences as to what we were offering.
Rosenberg: That's why our new show is called Pizza and Girls! [laughs]
Appelbaum: You'll know exactly what you're getting when you tune in [laughs].
So what do you guys have coming up next?
Rosenberg: We're actually in Toronto right now, shooting a two-hour pilot for ABC called Happy Town.
What's that about?
Rosenberg: : It's very much Twin Peaks. It's a scary show. Small town, mall town. Scary show. We're more than halfway done with it, and it's amazing.
Any cast you can let us know about?
Rosenberg: It's a humongous cast. There's Jeff Stultz, who was in our show October Road, Amy Acker. ... Who else is in the show? Dean Winters, who played the dad in . ... Robert Wisdom from The Wire. ... Francis Connelly from Six Feet Under. It's an amazing cast.