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TV Review: BBC’s Excellent ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Picks Up Where ‘Life on Mars’ Left Off

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HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 5.0/5.0
Television Rating: 5.0/5.0

CHICAGO – “Ashes to Ashes” may be one of the most unusual choices for a TV sequel but sometimes the best series come from the most unexpected places. This may be the most pleasant surprise TV fans will get all year. The BBC’s brilliant “Life on Mars” has been dragged from the glitz and glamour of the ’70s to the turbulent ’80s in the as-good-and-arguably-better “Ashes to Ashes,” another notch in the belt of great BBC programming.

If you’re not watching BBC America, you’re missing some of the best television out there. Go to your local DVD store and catch up on seasons of the new incarnation of “Doctor Who,” “Robin Hood,” “Skins,” “Primeval,” and the amazingly entertaining “Torchwood”. The original “Life on Mars,” not the far-inferior (but still better than the near-cancellation predicament it is in) ABC remake, won’t be on DVD until July 28th, 2009. Mark your calendars.

Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes in Ashes to Ashes.
Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes in Ashes to Ashes.
Photo credit: Kudos Films/BBC America

One of the greatest shows to come out of the UK told the story of Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm), a man in a car accident in 2006 who wakes up in 1973. Is he dreaming? Is he dead? Has he gone back in time? Not only did Sam have to deal with the differences between being a cop in the ’70s compared to the ’00s and work for the hard-nosed DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), but he had to figure out how to get back to his own time.

Dean Andrews, Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, and Marshall Lancaster in Ashes to Ashes.
Dean Andrews, Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, and Marshall Lancaster in Ashes to Ashes.
Photo credit: Kudos Films/BBC America

I won’t ruin the end of “Life on Mars” for people who are going to catch up on DVD, but it’s not the first show you’d expect to get a sequel. The end of “Mars” did allow for the idea that DCI Hunt and his team, including Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), would have moved on since the action of that show and naturally progressed into the ’80s. That’s where we find them in “Ashes to Ashes” (another title taken from a David Bowie song).

The Detective this time is a heroine, Inspector Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), another fish-out-of-water either traveling through time or stuck in her own near-death dream. Drake is kidnapped and shot in the first episode and wakes up in 1981, but this time she’s knows what to expect, being familiar with the unusual case of DCI Sam Tyler. In fact, she’s been studying the reports about Tyler and is convinced that the dream world she now finds herself in is completely constructed by her own mind. Yeah, Hunt and the rest of the guys love that.

With a great ’80s soundtrack, better fashions, and a killer Audi Quattro, Alex has to work with Hunt and his sidekicks to solve crimes of the day and try and figure out how to get back to her daughter. If Drake is stuck in between life and death is there anything she can do to make sure she survives? If she’s dreaming, why 1981, the same year that her parents died? The mystery at the core of “Ashes to Ashes” already seems just as intriguing as “Life on Mars” and has the potential to become more so.

Just as “Life on Mars” spent time focusing on the difference in practical police procedure between the ’70s and the ’00s, “Ashes to Ashes” has a great recurring theme of the lack of mental profiling in the ’80s. Drake is well-trained in how to analyze a suspect’s actions, something that baffles and frustrates Hunt and the rest of the more by-the-numbers officers of the ’80s. But, at the same time, DCI Drake is not afraid to get her hands dirty. She clearly intrigues Hunt.

Dean Andrews, Philip Glenister, and Marshall Lancaster in Ashes to Ashes.
Dean Andrews, Philip Glenister, and Marshall Lancaster in Ashes to Ashes.
Photo credit: Kudos Films/BBC America

There’s a lot to love about “Ashes to Ashes,” including the same caliber of clever, witty writing as “Mars” and Glenister is fantastic once again, but, and I don’t mean this as a slight to John Simm at all, I think I might like Alex Drake more. Hawes is simply fantastic, both vulnerably afraid that she may leave her daughter without a mother and a tough-as-nails counterpoint to Hunt. The chemistry that these two stubborn-yet-genuine people have makes for fantastic television.

But why compare? “Ashes to Ashes” is at least as good as “Life on Mars,” and that’s saying something incredible. It’s as gripping, riveting, and so smartly written and performed. Once again, BBC America continues to be a leader in cable and satellite TV when it comes to the best programming around. I love “Ashes to Ashes”.

‘Ashes to Ashes,’ which airs on BBC America, debuted on March 7th, 2009 at 8PM CST and the first episode airs again on Wednesday, March 11th, 2009 at 8PM CST and 11PM CST, and Saturday, March 14th, 2009 at 7pm CST before the new second episode. It stars Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster, and Montserrat Lombard. The show was created by Matthew Graham & Ashley Pharaoh.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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review

Good review. I love Ashes To Ashes too, and also can’t really separate Simm and Hawes, for their acting performances, as the Detective Inspectors (DIs) from both series.

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