This article addresses the nature of police television dramas through an in-depth analysis of the characters and plotlines of the BBC show Life on Mars. It assesses how the series compares and contrasts with other cop shows such as The Sweeney and The Wire and questions whether the fictional representations of police and society in Life on Mars are indicative of what criminologists know about police culture from the 1970s onwards. The article also explores what this complex programme means for the general public with their anxieties about the efficacy of criminal justice agencies in a post-industrial society. The piece then addresses the representations of police occupational cultures depicted during the series (including elements of officer corruption, sexism, racism and homophobia) and how these help us to understand the changes in policing that occurred between 1973 and the 2000s. It suggests that, despite its ambiguities, Life on Mars in many ways acts as a paean to 1970s policing by appearing to reject the ‘politically correct’ strictures that surround policing in the 21st century.