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Ashes to Ashes, Funky to Funky…

Caught the finale of Ashes to Ashes on the Beeb last night. It was actually quite good, all told – though it did end on the twist that I had predicted erroneously that Life on Mars would end on. Still, though the second series was a vast improvement over the first, I couldn’t help but think that Ashes to Ashes remained in the shadow of Life on Mars throughout its run. It was solidly entertaining television and one of a handful of shows I’d watch week-in and week-out, but it wasn’t really spectacular. And it had so much potential…

Here come the fashion police...

Here come the fashion police...

Update: Apparently Ashes to Ashes is to have a three-season run, confirmed by Philip Glenister on BBC Breakfast yesterday, so this article is rather premature. I’m not sure if this changes how I feel about that  brilliant  final scene, but I’ll be tuning in…

Life on Mars came out of nowhere. It was a wacky twist on a stale police procedural model. It also gave us one of the most iconic characters to brace telly in this part of the world. The gimmick – is Sam Tyler really in a coma fighting to wake up? – wasn’t overplayed during the show’s two-season run, nor was its setting. You never really felt overwhelmed by the seventies – it was just there. It was fun, it was fresh, and it was exceptionally well-written. The show ended after two series on the BBC – which is probably best, as there is nothing worse than a once-great drama slowly fading away.

While I enjoy the seventies, I love the eighties. It is the decade that taste truly forgot. So, when a spin-off of Life on Mars was announced to be set in the eighties, I was excited. Yet, as I watched the first season of Ashes to Ashes, something felt wrong. Or, to be more honest, it didn’t feel right. When it was good, it was brilliant (the finale to the first season, which is just one wham after another and featuring a fantastic guest performance for Geoffrey Palmer) – but overall it was fairly average. I tried to figure out what missing element of the Life on Mars formula had led to this inferior copy.

Perhaps Gene Hunt doesn’t work as a lead. The character is fictional. He occupies a space inside the minds of Sam and Alex. He is a hulk of a creation, a representation of everything that is so-wrong about early policing, but which seems somewhat softer when viewed in retrospect. Philip Glenister is a fantastic performer in the role, and he’s added a huge amount of depth to the character. Still, it’s hard to anchor a show in which your lead is not real – or is presented to your audience as unreal. The Gene Genie may flirt with his new DI, but we all know he’ll be discarded like a bad memory while the show’s final episode roles around – because there’s no way Alex will give up on her daughter.

Pretty far from a godawful small affair...

Pretty far from a godawful small affair...

Life on Mars was Sam’s story. It was his quest to figure out what he was doing in 1973 and get home. Gene Hunt was a distraction, an incredible distraction, but a distraction none-the-less. Sam was the perfect counterpart to Gene. Alex seemed… less so. In the wake of the first season, it was common for reviewers to criticise Keeley Hawes’ performance – so much that her erstwhile co-star had to leap to her defense. I think that’s a little unfair, and I think that any of Alex’s strengths as a character come from the central performance. But the character is a dud, I’m afraid to say. Yes, Sam wanted to get home; yes, he looked down on the primitives surrounding him – but he was never condescending, or at least not aggressively so. He was bewildered and confused – even bemused – but it rarely descended into looking down his nose at Hunt, which seems to have been Alex’s default position. It’s very hard to pull off a show where a lead feels superior to a likable ensemble.

Coupled with this was an excessively soapy feel that defined the show’s first season. Yes, it did lead to the breathtaking final episode, but Alex investigates her family ate into the show’s time in a way that Sam goes home for an episode but also investigates a mobster didn’t. I enjoyed the longer arcs – it made it feel like things were actually progressing in a way they hadn’t on Life on Mars. It got a lot better in the second season, but it was quite distracting during the first. It didn’t help that – of all the threads tying the family drama together – not one of the characters was remotely likeable. It doesn’t bode well when the audience just doesn’t care if the lead character’s family lives or dies.

Still, the most likely reason I can see is the most obvious. Life on Mars was a groundbreakingly original concept. It inspired not only a spin-off in England, but an adaptation across the pond. Any take-off of the concept (a time-traveling detective) would seem unoriginal when compared. The concept was over two years old at the start of the first season of Ashes to Ashes, and even more now.

Perhaps I’m being unkind. I really enjoyed the final episode. I’ve really enjoyed most of the show’s run. It was fun and took risks with the concept. The supporting cast – Ray and Chris in particular – were allowed to grow in a natural and organic way beyond the simple caricatures that they were in the original show. I’ll likely pick it up and rewatch it on Blu Ray. Still, I think that – when the urge grabs me in years to come – I’ll reach for Life on Mars before I reach for Ashes to Ashes.

Oh, and while we’re on the finale, which was very good, all told, how come the show’s title song wasn’t played at all? It was barely featured last year as well, which is a shame. It’s a damn good song by a damn fine artist. It seems Sam heard Life on Mars every five bloody minutes. And even when he didn’t, there was a very good David Bowie song playing in the background.

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One Response

  1. […] Ashes to Ashes, Funky to Funky… « the m0vie blog […]

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