Friday 30 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes - Series 3, Episode 4

As this review is late I'll keep it short. Episode 4 completes a loose trilogy centring on the three secondary characters. Of the three, Shaz's episode was excellent, letting her take centre stage at long last and showing us her fears and strengths, all of which were believable and well scripted. Ray's episode was a mess. Ray's a bloke, a dependable bloke who does blokey things in a blokey way. I didn't need to be told about his inner angst. Blokes don’t have inner angst, other than worrying about if they have enough beer and fags. Chris's episode was better than Ray's, but not by much.

The good thing was that Chris was used sparingly. In fact the episode revolved around the guest character of a troubled undercover cop. And, unlike with Ray, Chris's problems were believable. He found it hard to express his feelings for the undercover cop and then over-reacted when he thought she'd been hurt, which led to him beating up a poor, defenceless thug. Putting aside the fact that the thug could have torn Chris into little pieces with one hand tied behind his back, this was consistent with the character we've seen before and his story came out in strong scenes rather than with tedious monologues. In addition the story didn't do what I was dreading of repeating the previous two weeks' plot structure. Keats didn’t drip bile in Chris's ear and instead he acted sneakily with the undercover cop. Neither did Chris think about betraying Gene before having a Life on Mars moment. This change of direction was interesting and improved my opinion of last week's episode slightly. But there endeth the good news.

The problem with this week's episode is something that has been increasingly annoying me about the format: the lead stories are just too routine and predictable. Ever since the first episode of Life on Mars when Sam had to catch a serial killer who left so many clues he struggled to avoid catching him until the end of the episode, the main stories have been weak, but it didn’t used to matter.

Life on Mars detailed the battles between Sam and Gene over how they should solve the obvious crime of the week. Sam solved crimes with his head and Gene with his heart, and they both got there in the end. The tension between them made the stories fun and it was the same with Alex and Gene, with Alex being even more analytical than Sam was. For no good reason I can see that tension has been abandoned. No longer does Alex get inside the bad guys' heads while Gene bangs their heads against the wall. They just accept each others' methods and don’t interact. The same goes for the other characters who stand back to let whoever is this week's designated main character take control. Also the nostalgic elements are now purely the pounding 80s music along with some moments such as Hunt accidentally trashing the Blue Peter garden, which aren’t as funny as they think they are. With the weird time-travel bits relegated to about 10 seconds a week, this all leaves more time for the central story. Big mistake. The standard Ashes story struggled to fill half the episode, but with the other elements that made the show work pared back so that the main story fills about 90% of the episode, it emphasises how uninteresting those stories are. In many ways this year the series has been more like a generic cop show, and that's not a good thing.

Worse, this time the brave undercover cop took up more screen time than any other character, which would be fine if she was an interesting character, but she wasn't. Last week's completely unsurprising revelation that the brave fireman was the bad guy provided some hope that things might be different this week. I kept watching hoping that she'd be for real and that for once the series would pull out a twist by not having a twist, but no. She was a bad guy too and so everything she said and did was a lie and so a waste of screen time, meaning that like last week I don’t think I'll bother watching this one again.

As for the rest: same old, same old. The intriguing possibilities about the stars in the centre of town was limited to Shaz mumbling, 'I dunno really'. The all-important Sam Tyler investigation moved backwards a micron or two when Alex rummaged around for a missing file. The ghost copper realized that only appearing for a half-second spooking wasn't good enough so this week he appeared twice, both times for half a second. The weather vane shadow had its weekly flitter on the ground when Alex imagined she was being buried alive, at least suggesting she might be the buried body in the future. Alex's tv came on, but provided static and it seems Molly has been consigned to the unresolved plot hole that swallowed up Summers, Evan, and Layton. And Keats delivered his usual narrative to the viewers, but he did cradle the undercover cop as she died like Hunt usually does, meaning something interesting I assume but frankly I find it hard to care any more. It seems likely now that there will be no plot development on the central mystery other than maintaining the status quo set up in the opening ten minutes of episode 1. And we'll just have to wait until the last ten minutes of the final episode when the clever reveal will be revealed. Based on the painfully poor reveals we get to the main stories every week I'm currently not holding out any hope it'll be surprising, interesting, or well thought out. Perhaps in the end it will be a triumph and show that all the clues really have been cleverly hidden in plain sight, but if we get a third dreary episode in a row I won’t be around to see it.

Luckily, next week looks like it might re-kindle my enthusiasm for the franchise when the bristling 'taches from Manchester arrive to bristle their 'taches and make fun of Hunt's smooth upper lip.

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