Wednesday, October 29, 2008

TV Review: Ashes to Ashes

Is it fair to judge a sequel by the standards of its predecessor?

We do it all the time: any review of a movie with a 2 or a 3 (or a Returns) will have at least one reference to the original. Comics discourse will compare Chris Claremont's current rut to his legendary first run on "Uncanny X-Men", or Brubaker's "Daredevil" versus Bendis' "Daredevil" versus Miller's "Daredevil", and so on. We treat sequels as an extension of the previous narrative, and we naturally expect the follow-up to hold to the same quality as what came before.

But this is a problematic approach, because it overlooks the fact that changes occur outside the diegetic level of the story. Television spin-offs can have different actors, different writers, different directors, and the end result can either surpass the original ("Torchwood" if only for the total and complete absence of Daleks) or fall far beneath ("X-Men 3: The Last Stand"). Sometimes the premise can be set on a completely different path from the original series: "Angel" tried to do a lot of things, especially towards the end, but the one thing it never consciously attempted was imitating "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in terms of plot structure and characterization (ie: seasonal Big Bad vs. Wolfram and Hart as the constant nemesis).

So with that in mind, let's have a look at "Ashes to Ashes", a spin-off of "Life on Mars".

I've always had a love-hate relationship with TV from my native country: for every "Ultraviolet" you get a clunker like "Hex", and to this day I have yet to see the appeal of "Doctor Who" (sorry, kazekage! Still not sold!).

But I loved "Life on Mars". Oh, it took me a few episodes to really get into it; John Simm is an acquired taste, and DCI Gene Hunt is so very 1973 that I couldn't help frowning every time he harrassed Annie. But Philip Glenister plays the role with so much heart that you can't bring yourself to hate him.

The thing that set "Life on Mars" apart - the thing that, in a broader sense, sets most UK television apart from its American counterpart - is that things are rarely spelled out. Like "Ultraviolet", "Life on Mars" leaves blanks for the viewers to fill in themselves: like the intro says, Sam gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Is he mad? In a coma? Has he traveled into the past? But the questions run deeper than that, because at times it seems Sam is inadvertantly setting up events that come to pass in the future: he sends Tony Crane to a mental hospital, and thirty years later Tony escapes and torments the comatose Sam. He takes down kingpin Stephen Warren and his own father assumes control of various criminal operations. So is he really following some kind of destiny or is his mind just creating situations to deal with any scenario that arises? And who is the Test Card Girl? We don't know for sure; we're not meant to know for sure. That's why I think the American adaptation is going to fail - even in the pilot, too much effort was made to force-feed the audience, leaving no ambiguity unresolved (Sam considers shooting a younger Colin to save Maya).

Anyway, "Life on Mars" ended with a proper finale that was both tragic and oddly comforting. And then we got "Ashes to Ashes": DI Alex Drake, a psychologist who studied Sam's "delusions", is abducted and shot in the head. She wakes up in 1981 and finds Gene Hunt and his team waiting for her... minus Sam, of course.

The twist, of course, is that Alex believes she's assimilated Sam's fantasy and expects this world to work for her the way it worked for Sam. Only it doesn't: Sam got messages through the television and radio, Alex hears nothing. Sam infrequently saw the Test Card Girl, Alex is chased by a clown (little girl vs. clown, hard to say which one is creepier there). But Gene Hunt is the same... well, mostly.

See, it's that "well, mostly" that makes "Ashes to Ashes" so complicated. It's not really something you can detach from "Life on Mars", if only because Alex never shuts up about it's all in her head (and that right there is a loss of ambiguity, because Sam is never really sure what's going on whereas Alex is utterly convinced and never loses that conviction). On the other hand, if we compare the two, "Ashes to Ashes" is going to come out looking all the poorer.

There are several reasons for this. Number one, Keeley Hawes gives it the old college try, but ye Gods, there are bite marks on every piece of scenery from Manchester to London. She shrieks at the sky, she curses, she quite overtly talks about how everyone is a figment of her imagination - and, of course, for the plot to hold together, people just ignore her or act amused rather than call the men with the white coats.

Number two, the series seems less interested in Alex finding her way around 1981 than it is in shadowy government conspiracies, the near-constant presence of her mother, and a quasi-romantic-triangle.

Number three, there's no counterpart for the absent Annie Cartwright, who served as Sam's confidante. She was the only one Sam was completely honest with, the only person who knew he believed he was from the 21st century. Alex doesn't have that, ostensibly because she doesn't need it - after all, she's 100% positive that this is all a product of brain damage - but it also means she doesn't have someone in her corner.

Number four - and this is the big one - Alex has a daughter. She has a rock-solid motive to return to 2008, and nothing can change that. Therein lies the problem: she's not at all tempted by the world of 1981. One of the best ongoing themes in "Life on Mars" was the way Sam was gradually falling in love with 1973, especially given the little we see of his cold, lonely existence 30 years later. Alex doesn't have any similar dilemma; if she finds a way "out", she'll take it without a second thought. No tension at all.

Number five, this series puts Gene Hunt in a very different light. "Life on Mars" had him as the lawless anti-hero, the guy who bends laws for what he thinks is the greater good. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's wrong. And Sam constantly struggled against that, the voice of morality to Hunt's amorality. But eight years later, when Alex Drake arrives, the police - and Gene specifically - fall so heavily under public scrutiny that Gene is quite visibly emasculated; he's dealing with lawyers, he's feeling past his prime, and it'd be an interesting turn for the character if Sam were still around, but Alex isn't inclined to care about his problems - not real, remember? - so, despite the fact that Glenister is still bringing his A Game to the picture, it doesn't work.

All things considered, "Ashes to Ashes" doesn't really live up to the excellence of "Life on Mars". And I think that, even if we were to detach the series from its progenitor (easy enough given that, after the pilot episode, Sam is never mentioned again, and Annie is never mentioned at all), it still wouldn't work: the plot is all over the place, Hawes constantly overacts, and it feels as though "Ashes to Ashes" provides too many answers - there's no uncertainty, no mystery, nothing to contradict Alex when she goes on and on about how her brain created the entire scenario and everyone in it. And that's such a big part of the appeal - not just for "Ashes to Ashes" but for British TV in general - that doing without it seems like a loss of some kind.