Series two of Ashes to Ashes debuts tonight on BBC America at 10 p.m. EDT.
I always wanted to like the original Life on Mars more than I actually did. The idea behind the whole show is fairly ingenious, the show's mythology was perfectly thought out, and the ending of the series is legitimately one of the greatest TV moments of all time. But in between the series premiere and the final episode, there were lots of episodes that forgot that the series was trying to do a modern day, gritty take on the '70s cop show and just pretty much became a '70s cop show, along with all of the problems inherent to the genre. It was gritty, sure, and Philip Glenister's Gene Hunt was one of the great TV character creations of the decade. But too many of the episodes felt like they were killing time between point A and point B. It didn't make the series unwatchable - indeed, it was a pretty good B show - but watching it, I always had the sense that it should have been better than it actually was.
Well, that feeling returns twofold in Ashes to Ashes, a sorta sequel to Life on Mars that takes place in the '80s, features Gene Hunt, and keeps up the central idea of a person who's transported to the past by a form of trauma and then has to become a police officer there. Ashes to Ashes is still enjoyable, mind, and tonight's second series' premiere has lots of fine moments, but there's a definite sense from the show that it's the CSI: Miami to the original series' CSI: Original Flavor. (Or, honestly, a better comparison may be Life on Mars: Law & Order :: Ashes to Ashes: Law & Order: SVU.) There's always a sense that the producers are trying to correct some of the flaws, but they're too enamored of the period trappings to wholly do so.
If there's one thing I like about Ashes to Ashes, it's the way the show plays with the edges of the mythology developed in both this series and Life on Mars. There's a definite sense that Gene Hunt is more than just a gruff police captain, that he's the key to some sort of puzzle that needs to be solved by both series' protagonists. Furthermore, Ashes to Ashes finds some pretty nifty ways to expand the series' central question of whether the protagonist is time traveling or just in a coma and hallucinating all of this. Just as the show seems to have closed up one avenue of investigation - by suggesting, say, that Sam Tyler's travels from the parent series left traces of evidence in our day - it opens up another and suggests that everything we know is wrong.
It also helps that Ashes to Ashes, like Life on Mars, is ridiculously stylish. The show is doing a riff on the '80s cop show, now, and while it's nowhere near as glitzy as, say, Miami Vice, the show both evokes the over-the-top trappings of the era and the faded sense of the dying British empire felt throughout the UK at the time. The series has also gotten a boost in budget, seemingly, and that leads to a lot of cool shots and images. There are some absolutely gorgeous images of corpses in tonight's premiere, and the opening scene, set in the hospital where the protagonist is lying in bed, is nicely shot through with a sense of sterilized dread (should such a thing exist).
I also like Keeley Hawes work as Alex Drake, the lead character, though it took me a while to warm to her. The first series tried a little too hard to give Alex a fighting interest in staying in both 1981 and 2008 - her parents are about to die in the former, and her daughter is left without her guiding hand in the latter - but I like the way the series suggests that this could all be in her head simply because her discussions with Sam Tyler planted the idea in the first place. At the same time, I like the way she seems to have slipped into her life a little more over the course of that first series and in tonight's premiere. She still freaks out when she sees scenes from the future on TV, particularly when they involve her daughter, but she's figuring out how to make her bizarre time travel work for her.
Hawes has gotten some guff for not being John Simm, I guess, but I think that she takes the whole conceit of the series and makes it much more approachably emotional. Simm played Sam Tyler as kind of a rugged idealist who was just going to get through this shit, no matter what (and this made his realization of his love for Annie in the series' closing passages that much more moving). Alex gets really drawn into these situations and her emotional struggles are more nakedly written across her face, but her willingness to tease out just what's real about her situation makes for some really fascinating moments. Plus, she works well with Gene (and Glenister's performance is still terrific). Watching the two try to solve the murder of a cop in tonight's premiere makes for some of the best moments in the show.
In the end, though, Ashes to Ashes has trouble reaching the level of even Life on Mars because the idea just isn't fresh enough any more. Life on Mars was a fine show, but it was an even better concept. Fortunately, it lasted just long enough for the concept to not overstay its welcome, for all of us in the audience to mostly not notice that it doesn't do a huge job of overcoming the flaws inherent in the genre it's aping. TV has moved on since the '70s and '80s, and just taking the characters and plopping them into these other worlds loses its luster over time. I think that the producers of Ashes to Ashes are trying to tell a much tighter story and get deeper into the mythology of both shows, but they also seem a little too enamored of putting people in cool cars and gaudy clothes. There are fun things in Ashes to Ashes, but everything is in constant threat of being buried beneath an avalanche of period trappings and the slightly plotted police procedurals that come with them.
- One of those things I will probably never get, as I am not British and was not cognizant of the wedding: I don't quite get all of the love for Princess Diana from folks in the UK and, hell, all over the world. She seems like she was a pretty great person, but there are plenty of great people who don't get one quarter of the love lavished on her. I don't begrudge anyone their feelings in this regard, but it still mostly baffles me. Care to explain, Brits?
- Mild spoilers: I haven't seen the rest of season two, since I watch these on the U.S. time schedule. (I know, I know. Torrents are amazing, and all information should be free, never mind legality.) Is the phone call at the end setting up the things I think it's setting up? Or am I reading too much into them? Is Alex really going to try to prevent a major historical tragedy?
- Things I love: The closing credits font. More things should look like they're on the screen of an Apple IIe.