Ashes to Ashes

Monday, April 20, 2009 by

Tonight’s Ashes to Ashes reminds me just how cheaply I can be bought off by TV drama.

It is thanks to probably less than three minutes of screen time that I’ll be tuning in again next week. Whatever else they might have got wrong, the programme’s makers still know how to develop a story arc, and despite my expectation that this was to be the year the show went one twist too far, Alex Drake’s predicament remains gripping.

Yet many of the faults that undermined Ashes to Ashes last year remain, so ensuring it can never be a wholly satisfying piece of telly. Chiefly, the show’s odd habit of jumping around locations and moods with scant regard to continuity is still there. This results in a dissatisfying viewing experience, as the investigation isn’t able to build up a head of a steam before it’s diverted into the sidings by a superfluous bit of light-hearted business with Ray, or an attempt to glimpse the inner life of Gene Hunt. These latter moments are especially ineffective as Gene is clearly an empty vessel and no matter how many hints are made that he has some kind of hidden depths, he is never going to come close to being a rounded character.

In truth, Gene is as insubstantial as the detective story at the heart of each episode. This has perhaps always been the least impressive element of both Ashes to Ashes, and its predecessor Life on Mars. The investigations are pedestrian, patching together a vague approximation of a whodunit, while attempting to deliver a satisfying conclusion by uncovering the motivation driving the miscreant of the week. Not that this happened in tonight’s episode. In fact, when our cop killer was uncovered and brought to book, we never found out why he’d done it in the first place. It all hints at darker and more substantial things to come, but for now it makes for an unsatisfying conclusion to this week’s episode.

But there are still things to be enjoyed in Ashes. Alex Drake has been toned down a bit, and her relationship with Gene stabilised so they don’t just keep flicking between flirting and fighting. The corruption subplot and its potential to drive a rift between Hunt and Drake looks like it might make for an interesting storyline, particularly if we are made at some point to seriously question Hunt’s previously unassailable position of being someone we implicitly trust.

Best of all though are the story arc developments I hinted at above. Although Alex’s kidnapping is curiously swept aside by those existing in her 1982 reality, the shadowy figure and his allusions to future events is impressive – are we to take it, this is the patient from out of whose eyes we began watching this new series?

As much as the BBC would like it to be, Ashes to Ashes isn’t in the premier league of TV drama, and probably never will be. It allows its premise to deliver us thinly realised characters and lots of moments that refuse to comply with the laws of cause and effect. Nonetheless there is an attribute about the series that is genuinely impressive and assured, and that’s the way the show dangles its mystery in front of us. If it keeps doing that right, and there’s nothing better on the other side, I’ll keep tuning in.


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