‘Ashes to Ashes’ is not a great TV drama. It’s enjoyable, and a pleasant lightweight watch for the weekend. But it’s not a great police procedural series, and it’s not an overly complex mystery series.
The crimes are signaled easily: in the first episode we’re told early on that someone’s warehouse is closed due to health and safety, and the kidnappers then handily throw something out of a van wrapped in blue asbestos yet it takes the characters another 20 minutes to connect the two. In the second episode, the murderer is picking up vulnerable women via a dating agency so Alex arranges a speed dating night to flush out the killer. Of the men that attend, only two speak and only one isn’t a complete caricature. And he turns out to be the killer.
The overarching mysteries (What is this limbo-like state? Who is the policeman Alex dreams off with half his face missing? What did happen to Sam Tyler?) are catchier. They allow speculation – which the crime of the week doesn’t – but they aren’t as compelling as ‘Life on Mars’ initially was.
My money is on: the copper is Gene Hunt; the limbo state is just that – a limbo in which near-death coppers need to resolve things before they can move on to the next life or go back to their former lives.
And Sam? I barely even connect ‘Ashes to Ashes’ to ‘Life on Mars’. The latter didn’t – in its first series as least – wallow in cosy nostalgia to the same extent that subsequent series have. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ has a veneer of disapproval that barely hides the glee in every handbrake turn and every reactionary response of Gene Hunt.
‘Life on Mars’ was about Sam Tyler: ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is about Gene Hunt, not Alex Drake.
It probably tells you a lot about my response to the series that my first thought on watching episode one of season 3 was ‘oh, they’ve made Alex over as Tracey Thorn – good look’. And that on seeing Sharon in a beret and stripey top I muttered ‘Matt Bianco, or was it the ‘nanas?’. I’m faintly disappointed she hasn’t turned goth following her New Romantic phase. These are fashions and music from my teenage years: songs I know every word of from the lyrics in ‘Smash Hits’. Whether I liked the song or not. It’s very hard not to find Alex’s Uptown Girl dream funny.
But the nostalgia in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is the same you can get from watching an 80s music marathon on 4Music. Gene and the rest of it should be there to undercut that, to remind you that this was a time when suspects still ‘fell down the stairs’ in custody. There’s simply too much implicit approval in the writing and direction to make that undercutting work.
Oh, and in 1983 they should have been buckling up in the front seat of the Quattro.