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Although Series 2 of Ashes to Ashes was still one of the best things on TV, it did rather lose its way when compared to the first series and the earlier Life on Mars. The overcomplicated plotting made it feel like the writers were trying too hard to impress. Thankfully, Series 3 ignores much of the events of Series 2 and goes back to basics, ensuring that this at times puzzling, at times brilliant and always innovative TV show ends on a real high.
Series Three sees Alex Drake still stuck in the 1980s Met Police, having to work alongside the boorish, Neanderthal cop Gene Hunt and his genetic throwback colleagues, whilst also trying to work out what is happening to her.
Ashes to Ashes works on two levels. Each episode is a perfectly serviceable police style drama where the team are faced with a crime to solve and, at the end of 60 minutes, they have banged up the villain and (along with the viewer) had a lot of fun.
If that's all there was, though there would have had little to make it stand out. Instead, it has a twist. The main character, Alex Drake, is actually a policewoman from our own time (the new millennium) who has been shot. She is unsure whether she is in a coma, dreaming a make believe life in make believe world, or whether she really has travelled back in time. Either way, she wants to get back to her own time and to her daughter.
The series maintains a fine balance between straightforward cop drama and supernatural show. It also treads a fine line between being a pastiche of, and homage to 80s cops shows and 80s culture generally. There are plenty of knowing winks and nods to the decade (or subsequent events), but these are well integrated into the plots and the dialogue and never feel forced. True, there are a few examples of somewhat clunky writing (the sections where several of the lead characters (literally) see stars are overworked and clumsy), but generally speaking, the balance between cop show and supernatural drama is well handled.
Episodes fit together nicely. Each episode is effectively a stand-alone adventure, featuring an investigation into a crime, but at the same time these individual episodes contribute to the bigger story of what is really happening to Alex Drake. This is a really satisfying pattern to follow. On the one hand, you end each week feeling like you've seen a "proper" story reach a conclusion; on the other, the hints and pointers to the bigger picture make you even more intrigued and anxious to discover the truth.
It's the ending, though, that will really take your breath away. The series does a superb job of building slowly building the tension, with everything coming to a head by the final episode of Series 3. The ending has it all - stunning revelations, a real sense of tragedy, a feeling of emotion and loss and a palpable sense of drama as we see Gene Hunt's true identity finally revealed as his world crashes down around him. The whole series builds up to this point and, whilst every episode is enjoyable in its own right, it's the final one that will really linger in the memory.
As in previous series, it's the cast that really add that extra dimension. The main male characters (Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton) are now well established, having featured in both Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars and they feel like old friends. The various actors are clearly well-used to playing them and comfortable in their role, but they still manage to keep them feeling fresh. The double-act relationship between Skelton and Carling is priceless and at times their stupidity brings some real laughs; yet they are never used purely for comedy value and each has a crucial role to play in this series in their own right. It's a shame that WPC Shaz Granger feels somewhat superfluous and is rather blandly played by Monserrat Lombard, but that's probably been true for much of the preceding two series as well.
It's the central partnership between Gene Hunt and Alex Drake that really sets the series alight, though. After a few early misfires, Keeley Hawes and Philip Glenister have built up a real sense of chemistry so that by Series 3 they have that same sort of love/hate relationship that existed between Sam Tyler and Hunt in Life on Mars. The banter and insults fly back and forth with no quarter asked or given. At the same time, a more serious element to their relationship develops, as each starts to question the other and wonder how far they can be trusted. The slightly strained relationship between the two is well-balanced and the series still maintains the sense of fun of earlier episodes, along with that inevitable will-they, wont-they element.
Daniel Mays is also a welcome newcomer to the series as the oily Jim Keats who is determined to bring down Gene Hunt. Keats could so easily have been the pantomime villain of the piece, but (mostly) keeps over-acting in check. Whilst it is always clear that he is not one of the good guys, it's never quite clear (until the final episode) what his true motives are and whether his professed desire to help Alex and the others is genuine or simply a means to an end. Some chronic overacting in the final episode aside, Mays is uniformly excellent and his running battles with Gene Hunt add an extra dimension to this final series.
One criticism which I made against previous series of Ashes to Ashes related to the music. It felt as though the writers felt the need to "prove" the series' 80s heritage by accompanying virtually every scene with a song from the era - often played so loudly that it drowned out dialogue. Thankfully, this has been fixed for Series 3. Whilst music is still an integral part of the series, it is not as intrusive and feels more appropriate.
When a third series was announced, I was deeply sceptical (after the slightly disappointing series 2) that there was enough to work with. Not for the first time, I was wrong. When the mystery of Gene Hunt is finally solved, you are sad to see the end credits roll for one last time and part of yearns for a series 4. That said; this really would be a mistake. The characters have run their course, the mysteries have been resolved and there is nothing more to say. Ashes to Ashes Series 3 allows this innovative series to go out on a real high, rather than being allowed to go on well past its sell-by date.
Despite the odd weaker episode here and there, Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars represents a high point in recent British TV. It shows that when we put our minds to it, we can easily compete with the big American networks in producing top quality programmes that entertain and challenge.
© Copyright SWSt 2012