Speaking of period dramas on television, John Rogers recently told me to watch Life on Mars. So I am. And so far it’s really quite good: early Hill Street Blues meets A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (or something).

Anyway, the thing I’m enjoying most is the show’s relentless critique of nostalgia. The main character, a contemporary British detective who finds himself transported back in time to Manchester in 1973, can’t seem to decide if he misses his friends or his cell phone more. When he’s at his most despairing, in the early episodes at least, he focuses on the dearth of creature comforts available to him. Even if you weren’t trained as an environmental historian, the emphasis on material conditions — a lack of central heat, spotty electricity, a studio apartment appointed with a twin bed — is pretty obvious. It’s a healthy reminder that the past, even the recent past — forget the damp and drafty castles of the Middle Ages — was pretty grim.

The point may be that our current age is wondrous, filled with innovations straight out of science fiction, especially in the realm of policing and medicine. Regardless, though I suspect historians are especially cranky about the emptiness of nostalgia, I think the show gets its view of the historical city just right: unlike Mad Men, which makes the early 60s built environment seem awfully appealing — that furniture! that color palette! — Life on Mars suggests that urban life used to suck.

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