After two poor episodes the series returns to top form with an enjoyable romp. The previous episodes featured dreary stories that struggled to last for the hour, but this time round there was enough material to fill three episodes leading to a non-stop frantic mixture of comedy, drama and character.
The promise that the series would morph into Life on Mars was fulfilled with the arrival of Litton, Hunt's sparing partner from the first year of the franchise. Litton is a glorious creation, being preposterous, funny and weird while somehow also making a serious point about the behaviour of the police. Ashes usually goes to great lengths to show us that Hunt's team are dinosaurs from a bygone age, often by letting them rub up against more mature and forward thinking people. Litton turned all that on its head by taking the opposite route of saying what we've all been thinking that since Hunt went south he's gone soft. Anything that Hunt can do in being non-PC, fitting up villains, and generally riding roughshod over every rule in the book, Litton can be twice as bad. So Litton and his equally moustached partner Bevan swaggered around Hunt's patch beating up bad guys, violating several isms in every sentence, and treating all southerners with equal contempt.
Litton's macho nonsense brought out the best in Hunt as a race to solve a crime for a barrel of beer gathered pace. Better still Hunt's and Ray's realization that these days they act like a couple of great, soft, sissy, girlie, nancy, french, bender, Man United supporting poofs perfectly captured the twisted morality of Life on Mars. The cops may be corrupt under today's rules when they beat confessions out of the blaggers, fit up whomever they fancy for the crime, and take the line that evidence can always be found to please a sympathetic judge. But these cops know best what the line is between good and evil, and evil is the scumbags on the street and good is the copper who keeps decent folk safe while never taking bribes. The last element was perhaps a little strained as Litton was around in Manchester when Hunt was still taking bribes, but he still brought the basics of the old Manchester approach to crime solving down south.
I've poured a lot of scorn on the recent episodes' weak stories, and this week the main story was again slight and it again included the twist that the bad guy was decent and the good guy was bad, but with the characters interacting again that didn't matter. So Alex tried to get into the head of a northern comedian, played by the always worthwhile Roy Hudd, while Hunt thumped anyone who got in his way. The other characters also interacted with Chris being his usual awkward sensitive self and Ray struggling to work out how a bloke should behave to prove he's a bloke. I wish they'd made this episode Ray's episode instead of the dire episode 3 as we learnt more about what makes Ray tick in a few short entertaining scenes than we did during the whole of that angst filled dirge. Ray is happy to dance on stage with Chris at the police ball, but the moment the macho Litton arrives he has to show he's a real man by not dancing. As the episode progresses Ray first devolves to a Neanderthal then is reborn as a new man when he gets on stage to sing Danny Boy badly. The singing was less dramatic than the petrol can scene from episode 3, but more effective and real.
The comedic and nostalgic elements also returned to top form with Chris's terrible 80s dancing and a bizarre interlude where the bad guys shoot-up Ben Elton. I couldn’t tell if that was an affectionate joke or a cruel one as yes, as Alex said, that spared us the Queen musical, but I'd hate to think Alex's past world would never get to enjoy Blackadder.
The best element for me though was that for the first time this series the show made the lack of movement in the bigger picture work. Absolutely nothing happened that explains with any more clarity what's going on, but for once we got to see everyone's reaction to the weirdness. So the ghost copper, who was probably a bit tired after spooking Alex twice last episode, never appeared and if the weather vane shadow appeared I missed it, but that was more effective and tension-filled than the usual half-second spooky moment. What we got instead was about a hundred mentions of Sam Tyler, none of which told us anything, but they all provoked reactions or in Gene's case a stony-faced refusal to react. Later Gene sneakily destroyed all the evidence on Sam's mysterious death as he tried to convince us he was up to no good, but that only went to prove to me that he's got a good reason. It's a bit like watching Captain Kirk being accused of killing Spock. The more the evidence piles up that he did it the more you know for sure that he didn't. For what it's worth I'll stick to my theory that what Gene is covering up is the fact that he saw Sam disappear. I’d guess when Sam died in the real world he stopped existing in the fantasy world and Gene witnessed that, and it's the realization that he's not real that worried him.
Ray also faced questions about existence when like Shaz and Alex he found himself on the edge of the world confronted by stars. This was a short but effective scene as from that moment Ray's attitude changes and he gets closer to Shaz as they share their worries that reality is under threat. The strangest sequence though was Alex having flashbacks of Life on Mars with Sam modelling his leather jacket. I had the unfortunate experience of opening the Daily Telegraph newspaper this week and amidst the ranting the reviewer of this episode perfectly summed up the Sam Tyler scene as being so bizarre it'd have confused David Lynch. I therefore won’t try to read anything into that because as with everything else we again learnt nothing new, but with the characters now reacting to the odd sequences it at long last feels like the series is heading somewhere.
Next week there's a prison riot and Hunt's team goes in disguised as undercover cops. The only article I've read about the episode said avoid the spoiler and as I didn't I'd suggest you do.