Ashes to Ashes

Posted on May 27, 2010

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This time, no spoilers.

A few years ago, my wife and I hit upon a program called Life on Mars on BBC America (not the ill-fated American version). We thought it was brilliant. A modern-day British police inspector, Sam Tyler, gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. In that time, he’s a police inspector on his first day with the Manchester bobbies. Is he in a coma and imagining it all, or has he really time traveled?

The show lasted two seasons and wrapped things up. Then, in 2008, BBCA brought us the sequel, Ashes to Ashes. Another modern-day British police inspector, Alex Drake, is injured, and wakes up in in ’80s. This time, she’s in London rather than Manchester, but the same team of detectives are there, led by Gene “the Gene Genie” Hunt (played by Philip Glenister).

When Sam traveled back in time, Gene Hunt was an example of everything that was wrong with law enforcement in the ’70s. He was an ignorant, violent, racist, sexist, drunk. Sam worked hard to demonstrate that being culturally aware, fair minded, even handed, and sober while at work actually made the police more effective. Over the course of two seasons, Sam focused on the core of Gene’s character: the desire to protect people from criminals. Over time, Gene demonstrated an animal cunning. He maintained his abrasive exterior, while changing his thinking. He learned from Sam while still fitting in with the environment and culture in which he had to exist.

When we see Gene again, 10 years along, he’s still a cunning bastard. As the world has become more enlightened, Gene has been able to show more of what Sam taught him – but he’s still constrained by the expectations of his peers and his superiors on the Metropolitan Police. This time, it’s Alex who has to learn and adapt. She keeps underestimating Gene because of his tough, abrasive exterior, only to find out that he’s far more clever, and far more devoted to justice, than she assumes.

That’s good writing. Plus, Philip Glenister is just brilliant as Gene Hunt. I can’t recommend the two shows strongly enough.

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Posted in: television