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Ashes to Ashes
Starting tonight March 7, BBC America will broadcast the series, Ashes to Ashes
Eight Years Into the Future From That Last Trip to the Past
By GINIA BELLAFANTE
“Life on Mars,” the smart, moody British paranormal police procedural that gave rise to a less compelling American imitation, has spawned a sequel, “Ashes to Ashes” (beginning on Saturday on BBC America), which affectionately preys on what must be our hardy and sustained collective appetite for images of women in pseudo Thierry Mugler leather. Like its predecessor, “Ashes to Ashes” takes its title from a David Bowie song and its historicism from the view that the social dynamics of the recent past ought best to be regarded with a sort of disapproving wistfulness.
The first series sent Detective Sam Tyler from the present day to a Manchester, England, police precinct in 1973, where he developed, against any initial inclination, an abiding fondness for Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, despite Hunt’s lack of professional circumspection and his politically insensitive style.
Hunt is not a great appreciator of able women or of standard operating procedures, and thus his tolerance is tested even further when he is made to oversee Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), a beautiful psychological profiler with an Oxbridge education and attendant vocabulary, who has been shot in the head outside the Tate Modern in 2008 and somehow funneled to 1981 London, where “Ashes to Ashes” is set amid the grievances born of Thatcherism.
Britain in the 1980s is arguably a lot more interesting than Britain in the ’70s, and “Ashes to Ashes” sharply engages the factionalism of the day: the mounting antipathies of the working class, the growth of privatization and development, the fury over nuclear armament.
The aesthetics of the show are aptly shoddy, reflective of a period in which unemployment more than doubled, to 3 million by the end of 1982, from 1.4 million in 1979. After hours, the detectives in Hunt’s squad hang out at an Italian place called Luigi’s, where you can smell the cheap acidity of the Chianti as if it were being decanted in front of you.
The counterpoint to this dreary surface is Alex, who arrives in 1981 looking as if Bryan Ferry had just called her to sit for the cover of the next Roxy Music album. She is white-hot, red-hot, you-name-it-hot, the objective truth of which is hardly lost on Hunt (played again here by Philip Glenister with the same sweaty, wonderful bluster), who would prefer to detest her as he reflexively detests every overthinking member of the aristocracy.
The mutual contempt results in a sublime chemistry, the kind we watched “Moonlighting” for, and one that evokes the raw difficulty of office sexual politics at the moment when women were first entering the workplace with their armored blazers and power dreams. Part of Alex’s fantasy is that she can have Hunt whenever she decides to indulge her condescension, but he seems to be a sterner safeguard of propriety than anyone might imagine. The point, subtly made, is that virtue belongs largely to the working classes rather than to the well-off sexual libertines.
The show revels in mocking lawyers, pious activists, royal weddings (Charles and Diana married in 1981) and the nascent women’s studies movement, which has Alex and her compatriots overusing terms like “construct” to the endless frustration of Hunt and his lackeys, who continue to call women birds.
“What is that? What is ‘girlfriend?’ ” a lefty white protester in an African cap asks one of the cops on the force before informing him that the box of chocolates he is about to give his girlfriend is an evil symbol of patriarchy. “Ashes to Ashes” doesn’t sucker punch us with the inanities of political correctness, but nudges enough to make us wish that it were what we were all still fighting over.