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I'm Happy, Hope You're Happy Too: Another Look at BBC America's "Ashes to Ashes"

Longtime readers of this site know of both my love for the original UK series Life on Mars and its sensational sequel, Ashes to Ashes, which aired its first season last year in the UK.

My original review for Ashes to Ashes, which launches Stateside this weekend on BBC America, can be found here. I wrote the review back in February 2008, when the series first launched and I've fallen under its spell ever since. (There's also my very spoiler-laden review of the first season finale here.)

While Life on Mars followed Detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) seemingly back in time to 1973 after a car accident, Ashes to Ashes focuses on a female profiler named Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) who is shot at point blank range and finds herself propelled backwards in time to 1981. Cue the New Romantics soundtrack, Thatcher-era power suits, a terrifying Pierrot clown (courtesy of David Bowie's music video for "Ashes to Ashes") and a blood red Audi Quatro... driven by none other than Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).

But, wait, wasn't Gene Hunt just a fictional construct created by Sam Tyler's subconscious as he lay in a coma in present-day Manchester? There's no short answer to that tantalizing proposition but Alex is acutely aware of her predicament, as she clings to life after being shot by a madman and desperately searches for a way to return to her daughter. She knows that the world Sam described after he woke up from his coma can't be real, and yet here she is interacting with (not to mention arguing with and flirting with) Gene Hunt. And there's Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) to boot. Just what is going on here?

Like Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes has a personal puzzle for Alex Drake to solve. In this case, it's the mystery behind the deaths of her parents, a pair of prominent human rights lawyers whom Alex believes may have been murdered. Seemingly arriving in 1981 mere weeks before their deaths, Alex believes she may have been sent back to prevent their deaths... or to catch their killer.

But don't think that Ashes to Ashes is merely Life on Mars with a new coat of paint and a, well, Members Only jacket. It's a deeply nuanced series that stands on its own two feet with its own intricate mythology and psychology, not to mention a haunting specter in the form of the Pierrot clown at its center. Tonally, it has a sexier, edgier quality as well and tweaks some of the clich├ęs and stereotypes of Thatcher-era London with a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

It's good to see the incomparable Gene Hunt again and Glenister gives Hunt's trademark swagger a little tinge of weariness as well (unlike, however, Harvey Keitel's portrayal of the role, which makes Hunt seem grumpy and, well, sleepy). Having transferred to the Metropolitan Police with Chris and Ray, Gene is now out of his element as well: a Northerner in London. This fish-out-of-water quality gives him a rapport with Alex, with whom Gene instantly strikes up a love-hate relationship.

For her part, Keeley Hawes gives Alex a touching vulnerability that wasn't seen in Sam Tyler as well as a need to connect with her parents and a real pull back to the future in the form of her daughter Molly. It's a series of invisible threads that connects her to her past, present, and future and each episode tugs on them in various ways. But Alex isn't a pushover: she's also a tough-as-nails psychological profiler who can get inside the mind of the criminals she's chasing... and hold her liquor. She's more than an equal match for the misogynistic Gene Hunt.

Rounding out the cast is Montserrat Lombard, who portrays ditzy WPC Sharon "Shaz" Granger. Shaz isn't a replacement for Liz White's Annie in Life on Mars but a product of a generation of women that didn't have to fight so hard for their place in the workforce. While Annie had to prove her smarts each and every day, Shaz drifts by with her looks and engages in a blatant romance with Chris Skelton. Yet, she's a compassionate and brave member of the team in her own right and Alex takes her under her wing. Trust me when I say that Shaz will become a much loved element of the series along the way.

Ultimately, Ashes to Ashes is a very different beast than Life on Mars. To me, it's paradoxically darker and funnier than its predecessor and gets under your skin in a way that's difficult to shake. (Plus, you can't beat the soundtrack.) All in all, the darkly seductive Ashes to Ashes is the ideal way to spend a Saturday evening. Even Gene Hunt couldn't find fault with that. So crack open a bottle of Chianti, turn up the Bowie, and prepare to head back to 1981.

Ashes to Ashes launches this Saturday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on BBC America.


I am a huge fan of Life on Mars and had very high expectations for Ashes to Ashes. Happily, it lived up to my expectations and managed to carry on the unique and original storytelling launched in Mars and add its very own twists and turns. Alex Drake is a fantastic lead and her tortured relationship with Gene Hunt is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Anonymous said…
I have heard such good things about this show and your glowing review was the icing on the cake. I can't wait to see it!
Anonymous said…
I will give another big thumbs up for Ashes To Ashes! I have the Region 2 DVDs for Season 1, and the series is a very worthy sequel to Life On Mars.

I hope BBC Video puts this on R1 DVD for people without a region-free DVD player, since BBC America will be editing 12-15 minutes from each episode for commercials (the Season 1 episodes run from 57-59 minutes).

Also, I just read that Acorn Media has acquired rights to Life On Mars UK, and are releasing the Season 1 DVD set on July 28, 2009 (with Season 2 to follow in 2010)!
Jeimuzu22 said…
Shouldn't it be "crack open a bottle of Bollinger"? XD

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