Tuesday, 21 April 2009

TV Review: The Gene Genie's back....Ashes to Ashes series 2

I was dismayed - no, colour me appalled - when I heard, midway through the screening of the second and final series of the sublime 'Life on Mars', that the BBC couldn't leave well alone. So easily and quickly had their quirky time-travel cop drama and, more particularly, its monstrously (and refreshingly) politically incorrect DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), entered the lexicon of modern British TV icons, that the Corporation just couldn't bear the thought of leaving the series and Hunt after just two eight-part series. So it was that 'Life on Mars' begat 'Ashes To Ashes' where, we were told, a female cop from the 21st century would find herself apparently relocated to the early 1980s where Gene Hunt and his chums would themselves have relocated from smokey 1970s Manchester to London, just about to enter one of its greatest periods of cultural upheaval and physical renewal. But it all sounded like a very bad idea to me, a case of desperately hoping that lightning can strike twice - and we all know that just doesn't happen.

Sure enough the first series of 'Ashes to Ashes' - with Keeley Hawes as timelost DI Alex Drake replacing John Simm's Sam Tyler - came and, largely, went. It wasn't a bad series; the talent both behind and in front of the camera meant that, if nothing else, it was a slick and assured piece of TV. But there was a sense of 'been there, done that' about it. It just wasn't new any more; we've been here before. Modern cop thrown back in time (in a coma?) and bumping heads with long-dead sensibilties from a time not so long ago and yet in some ways frightening prehistoric? Great stuff, refreshing and original in 'Life on Mars' but it just seemed a bit reheated, the same idea trotted out for the sake of it with nothing really new added to the recipe. The writers also seemed to be worshipping a bit too close to the altar of the Great God Gene Hunt; despite Glenister's gruff performances, Gene became a bit of a cliche in the first 'Ashes to Ashes', posing and posturing and spouting achingly-glib dialogue which just sounded too artificial. But it was a decent, watchable series - it just didn't have the shock of the new. It pulled in reasonable viewing figures and so a second run (with a rumoured third next year to tie everything up, although the press this week seem to be assuming this second series is the last) was pretty much a shoo-in.

And now it's here. The second series of 'Ashes to Ashes' has just started its run on BBC1....and count me a major convert. Some considerable work has been done on the format and style of the show and what we now have, judging by this first arresting (ahem) episode, is a series which has found its feet and learned to run. It's taken the tired 'Life on Mars' format, given it a bit of a shake, added a few new ingredients, a few new mysteries, and it's gotten off to the best start of any new British Tv series since....er...well, that'd be 'Life On Mars' I suppose. Odd, that.

Everything about this second series - and I appreciate I'm basing this entirely one one episode, the whole thing could come down like a deck of cards next ween and won't I feel like a Pierrot clown? - just seems more confident, more sure of tiself, a series with more direction. The set-up's the same; Alex is still 'stuck' in the past (we've moved on to 1982 now....the music was better) and she's still working with gruff old Gene Hunt and his cohorts Ray and Chris. But the forced sexual tension between Gene and Alex has been toned down, there's now a sense of mutual, if reluctant, trust between them and they both seemed to have learned from one another. Alex is still frustrated by the fact she can't 'get back' to her own time; like Sam Tyler she makes curious connections with the future - voices and faces on TV, talking dogs, mysterious gifts with curious clues - and, most intriguingly of all, the main in a bed in a coma at the very start of the episode, a man unconnected with the main narraruive, a man who's clearly very impoortant to what's to come. These are all intriguing mysteries, the sort of story-0threads which play on the mind, forcing the viewer to try and piece thignsd together, to try and work out exactly what's going on. 'Ashes to Ashes'; is wrong-footing us now, just like 'Life on Mars' did. We all assumed we knew that Sam was 'just' in a coma, the same way we assume Alex is too. This first episode sows a few more seeds and gives us something more to think about. That's whatg ood telly does. That's what great telly does.

The story itself is a fairly routine Police murder yarn - but this time the victim is one of their own. A popular up-and-coming young PC is found dead, in women's clothing, in a seedy Soho strip club. The only witness is shot dead soon afterwards, dying in Hunt's arms. Hunt is typically dismissive but Drake smells a rat. It soon transpries that the young copper's wife has been telling porkies (ah, see how easy it is to slip into Gene Hunt patois!) and has been having a bit of a fling (Hunt's descriptions are a bit more graphic) with Det Superintendent Mackintosh (Roger Allam) who's arrived on Hunt's 'manor' (ha, there's another one!) to make sure Gene and the boys are ready to change with the times. But there's more going on here than even this episode is prepared to give away; there are hints of real Police corruption with Mackintosh up to no good and covering up his own part in the young PC's demise and, it now seems, Gene Hunt willing to be complicit in his superior's misdemeanours. It's meaty, gritty stuff, captivating to watch, beautifully filmed (1980s London is nicely evoked with tight camera angles and imaginative set design) and acted with pace and vigour. Keeley Hawes came in for a lot of criticism last year, probably because she wasn't John Simm. But here she's hugely confident, striding through the episode and thankfully bereft of the slightly OTT clothing which led to Hunt's sometimes-tedious "Bolly-knickers" nickname. Hunt himself remains a bit of a caricature, albeit a marvellously-watchable one, but Hawes has really stepped up to the plate this year and is making Drake just as interesting and multi-layered a character as her superior and, indeed, her illustrious predecesssor.

I'm more than pleasantly surprised to see this second 'Ashes to Ashes' series kick off with such a powerful and dynamic episode. it's clear that the writers have found their focus and it looks like we could be in for something very special indeed over the next seven weeks. Oh, and who could really slate a Tv episode which features The Funboy Three, Adam and the Ants, The Human League and ABC in its soundtrack? I mean, come on, you slaaaagggss...

No comments: