ABC’s “Life on Mars” has its series finale on Wednesday — which is a good deal earlier than its creators had hoped. Fans of the show can at least take comfort in the fact that executive producers Josh Appelbaum, Scott Rosenberg and Andre Nemec have had an ending in mind all along.
“It wasn’t terrifically complicated” to have the season finale also be the series ender, Rosenberg said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We always knew what the season finale would be, and we always knew what the series finale would be. We just didn’t expect to get to the series finale this quickly.”
The end of “Life on Mars” will come after 17 episodes, one more than the British series on which it’s based. Appelbaum and Rosenberg talked about the bittersweet nature of ending the series, bringing Sam Tyler’s (Jason O’Mara) time-tripping story to a close and a little bit about their next project, another mystery set up at ABC.
Oh, and one note: Their comments don’t spoil the ending for the ABC show, but they do for the British series — which is different from what will transpire on Wednesday. So be forewarned.
So I guess the primary question is, how do you think you did in wrapping things up?
Rosenberg: How do we think we did? Magnificently [laughs]. No, I mean, it was very painful. But it also wasn’t terrifically complicated. … Basically the script was already broken for the season finale, and then we just sort of switched it up toward the end. This was always the story we were going to tell no matter what. It was a very culminative episode — we answered a lot of questions but not the big question. Then we decided — or we didn’t decide, they told us we needed to answer the big question. So we just did it.
But like all [series] finales, it’s going to be wildly polarizing. Some people are going to absolutely adore it, and some people are going to want to run us out of town.
Is there anything you feel like you had to leave out in ending at this point?
Appelbaum: I think we covered as many bases as we had to and needed to for the fans. One thing’s for sure — by the end of this, you’ll have a very clear understanding as to what Sam Tyler’s journey has been, and these other characters we’ve been following, where they played into it and why it’s all been going on. If there are other questions that are dangling out there in the world, that’s sort of the fun of DVD box sets and rewatching the series, exploring it as time goes on.
Rosenberg: We had to leave something out for [when we’re] in our dotage and getting paid like $20 to go to science fiction conventions, so they’ll have questions they can ask us when we sign autographs on Harvey Keitel‘s face.
It seems like, based on last week’s episode, you’re taking your ending in a more overtly sci-fi direction. Is that fair to say?
Appelbaum: They both shared elements of the sci-fi and of the mystical. I wouldn’t say it’s more or less; I would say it’s just different.
The producers of the British show have said you all got together at a bar and discussed your endings.
Rosenberg: Yeah — did we tell them our ending? We did, because they got us drunk.
Appelbaum: Yeah. Those guys have been a great support system and a great resource for us. From beginning to end, they gave us the dos and don’ts of trying to do a 1973 science-fiction cop show. They’ve been great partners in this.
Was last week’s episode always intended as the next-to-last episode of the season, or the series?
Rosenberg: Yes. We wanted to give just enough — I think people tend to start getting really frustrated if you don’t explain some stuff along the way. We were planning on answering a lot of questions even if this had just been a season finale, and then pose some new ones. I think it’s all about that — you can’t just keep teasing an audience. I think at a certain point, they just get fatigued.
Did you have it sketched out as to how you could have gone three or four years?
Appelbaum: This was obviously the endpoint, and obviously we would have liked to go on longer. But the one good thing — and it’s something we say to console ourselves — is that if we had gone on for three or four years, it probably would have been harder to stay as consistent as we now have to what this endpoint is. We would have been forced to go off on tangents that may or may not have supported this end place. So at the moment, this stands as a 17-hour miniseries that sort of all ties together and hopefully will be satisfying.
Obviously you’re not going to tell me how your show ends. But for those who have seen the British show, how is it different?
Rosenberg: It’s just completely different. … We decided when we first took the gig that it was going to be completely different, and then when we were shooting the pilot when we came up with this ending. Everything has adhered to that. We never did anything we couldn’t explain away with this ending, because we just didn’t want to get into that trap. There have been clues every step of the way that this is what it was. You know — it was just the idea that anyone could find out the coma ending [from the original], so we just … wanted to do something different.
I know you’re also doing a little something to wrap up your last show, “October Road” …
Rosenberg: Yeah, we did it.
Appelbaum: It’s going to be on the DVDs that come out at the beginning of May, the season two DVDs.
Rosenberg: That’s what we do. We wrap everything up.
Can you compare the two experiences?
Appelbaum: “Life on Mars” had much bigger mythological questions at hand — literally the fabric of the show was in question as to what you were watching. With “October Road,” it was — in our wrapup of that, you’ll find out who Sam’s father is, you’ll find out how all these relationships ended up. In “Life on Mars,” you’re going to get — the nature of the questions are a lot more cosmic, as it were.
And now you’re doing another mystery for ABC, right?
Appelbaum: Yeah — we’re masochists. [Both laugh]
Rosenberg: We’re shooting it now, we’re actually in Toronto right now. It’s called “Happy Town.” It’s very “Twin Peaks”-ish. It’s like a scary show, a small-town spook show.
Appelbaum: It’s a huge ensemble, a two-hour pilot. It’s a big, robust ensemble piece.
Rosenberg: Gary Fleder, who directed the “Life on Mars” pilot and the “October Road” pilot, is directing this one, and he’s killing it. The stuff is amazing; it’s really coming out great.
Appelbaum: And the cast is great — Geoff Stults is the lead, but then we have Amy Acker and Sam Neill and M.C. Gainey from “Lost” and Frances Conroy from “Six Feet Under.” It’s a great ensemble.