Ashes to Ashes: Season 1, Episode 5

The up and down season continues on Ashes to Ashes. After last week’s kickass episode, we’re back to another snoozer. In fact, I’m so disappointed with last night’s episode that I’m not going to write up one of my infamous 15,000 word summaries. Instead, I want to talk about the series in general: its strong points, its weak points, and where I think the whole thing is going. But I can’t just jump in to that. I have to give you some sort of write up of last night’s episode. So let me quickly get that out of the way first:

DCI Hunt and the gang are out to bust a drug dealer and pimp called Simon Neary. They’ve followed him to a hotel, and Hunt is certain that the briefcase that Neary carries is full of either drugs or cash to buy drugs. Technical problems with the team’s surveillance equipment cause an overconfident Hunt to hastily break down the door of Neary’s room. But instead of finding heroin, cocaine, or a giant pile of £50 notes, they find a young man… and a bunch of assorted sex toys. Neary, it seems, is gay.

Hunt goes back to the informant that gave him the tip about the “drug deal”, and this leads to yet another classic Gene Hunt exchange:

Hunt: Reeks, you maggot! I gave you a fiver for solid information and you, you give me a suitcase full of dildoes!

Reeks: Dope!

Hunt: Dildoes! The biggest of which I will shove so far up your ass it will give your tonsils a treat if you don’t give me something better!

Reeks tells Hunt that he (Reeks) is honestly out of the loop with Neary and his gang, but he’s heard rumors about a Neary-brokered gun deal going down soon. This leads Alex onto yet another tangent: if she can stop guns from getting into London, maybe she stop the gun that shot her from getting into the city, too. And so she can then go home.

Most of the remainder of the episode involves Hunt and Drake working on Marcus, Neary’s boyfriend, the same guy that the crew busted in on at the hotel. As you might guess, Alex is the only decent, “progressive” member of the crew. Gene and Ray simply can’t understand why someone would want to be gay; Drake, being from 2008, simply accepts Marcus’s homosexuality and tries playing the “good cop” angle with him.

As you can probably guess, Hunt and company eventually catch Neary (although perhaps not in the way you’d expect). While the episode was decent television (far better than just about anything on American TV these days), there wasn’t much to like about this episode… except a scene where Ray (of all people) is tasked to go undercover and hit on Neary (so that Marcus will see it and realize that Neary isn’t the great boyfriend he thinks he is). Ray, although completely uncomfortable with the entire concept, nevertheless does a pretty good job of flirting with Neary… until Simon whispers something into Ray’s ear which causes him to freak out:

Ashes to Ashes (Ep 5, 1)

Oh, and since no episode of Ashes to Ashes is ever complete without Keeley Hawes dressing up like a tart, let’s go ahead and get that out of the way:

Ashes to Ashes (Ep 5, 2)

* * *

Don’t get me wrong… I’m a red-blooded American male that enjoys watching girls dressed up like tarts on TV. I think that Keeley Hawes is kind of hot, too, in that “she’s not a supermodel, but there’s just something about her” kind of way. You’d think that seeing Keeley Hawes in skimpy outfits every week would be be win-win…

But it’s not. It’s just so… blatant that it’s getting old. Consider the “bra scene” I posted a picture of in last week’s recap. The exact same shot I posted at the last graphic in that recap was featured prominently in the “On the next episode” teaser at the end of episode 3. It was also featured prominently in the “Last Time…” recap at the beginning of this episode.

To the people at Kudos Productions and the BBC, I say this: we get it. Keeley Hawes is hot. She looks good in skimpy outfits. We all know that sex sells, and I’m sure you’re picking up additional viewers because of it (note: they are). But it’s getting a bit… contrived, don’t you think? What’s up next week – is a mobster going to celebrate a birthday, which causes DI Drake to work undercover by jumping out of the cake? Are the Triads going to try and corner London’s silk market, which will somehow lead to Drake wearing a skimpy kimono as she chases one of them into a walk-in freezer? A sudden rash of armed robberies at a nudist colony, perhaps? Maybe the IRA will bomb a latex factory, which causes Alex – just arrived back from the nudist colony – to be covered from head to toe in liquid latex… OK, I’m being silly, but you get my point.

In Life On Mars, Sam Tyler has no idea why he was sent back to 1973. During the course of series 1, he gets closer and closer to what he thinks is the reason, but this develops over the course of 4 or 5 episodes, and is ultimately rejected. In Ashes to Ashes, Alex thinks everything is the reason she was sent back in time. If 1981 Drake were to hear that Roundtree were developing a new flavor of Kit Kat candy bar, she’d immediately have a trippy flashback to her dad buying a Kit Kat on the way home from work the day he was murdered. If only she could stop Roundtree from introducing that new flavor if Kit Kat, maybe, just maybe, he dad wouldn’t stop for one on the way home – thus, changing history’s timeline and helping Alex find her way home! It’s tiring. But I guess that Alex has a different personality than Sam, so I guess that I can deal with it. But still, she’s supposed to be a psychologist and everything – you think she’d know better, right?

Thankfully, Caroline Price (Alex’s mother) made only a brief appearance in this episode. Many of the fan sites I’ve visited seem to actively dislike the whole “Alex has Mommy Issues” storyline. It didn’t bother me at first – in fact, I didn’t even really think about it until I read about it on a fan’s blog – but I can see where it would annoy some. It’s obvious to the viewers that Alex has gone back in time for some reason related to her parents, so I suppose that it only makes sense that she would run in to her mother there… and yes, I can see where Alex would have “Mommy Issues”. Of course, it’s highly convenient that Alex would be placed on Gene’s team, which, for whatever reason, is always running in to Caroline Price. You see this conceit in a lot of TV shows and movies – someone keeps running into someone else in a city of 10 million people. It boggles the mind that it could happen with a police force numbering in the thousands. Aren’t there corrupt cops in other London police districts that Caroline could be busting ? I guess that Kudos isn’t above using that tired old cliché.

But the writers need to tread carefully with this storyline. I can see this getting very old, very quickly. When I was a teen, I had a friend that hated her life, and talked about suicide all the freaking time. One night, she called me and said that she had swallowed a bunch of pills. I asked what type of pills they were (Valium), how many she’d taken (11 or 12), and how long ago she’d taken them (around 10 minutes before she’d called me). I just told her to take a spoon, stick it in the back of her mouth, throw the pills up and go to sleep. I became a pariah for a while when everyone at school found out what I’d said. I was the “uncaring friend”, the “jerk that told her to throw up just to get her off the phone”. No one ever stopped to listen to my side of the story: that when someone calls you and talks about suicide, you take it seriously. After the 300th time they’ve called you and talked about suicide, it just gets old. It’s not that you don’t care, it’s that getting a phone call like that drains the life (and adrenaline) out of you. And once someone has pulled that stunt 300 times, well… you just start to ignore it. And I hope that doesn’t happen to Alex – that she whines and whines about her mother so much that everyone just presses the fast-forward button on their DVR remotes.

Another thing that bothers me is the lack of (for a better word) the “supernatural” in Ashes to Ashes. In Life On Mars, 1973 Sam started hearing the voices in 2006 Sam’s hospital room almost immediately. He was routinely “visited” by the Test Card F girl and a lecturer from Open University (a British “distance learning” institution that used television-based courses from 1971 to 2006). He seemed to be in almost constant contact with either the 2006 world or the “supernatural” world. Yet, while Alex has seen The Clown on several occasions, and seems to have regular conversations with her 2006 daughter, Molly, when she’s alone, she hasn’t been contacted once by anyone from the present day. Of course, in 2008 she was dying alone in an abandoned barge on the Thames, so it’s possible that she hasn’t heard any voices in 1981 because no one’s found her in 2008 yet. But still, it seemed like there was always contact going on between 1973 Sam and “what was not 1973″. Ashes to Ashes seems to be missing this… a lot!

And speaking of “lots”… this episode in particular was heavy on the ham-fisted moralizing. Yes, Kudos, we get it: homosexuals used to have a bad time of it. Although life in 2008 is far from perfect for most gay people, we get that heterosexual people in 1981 weren’t much more evolved than medieval peasants. I’m surprised that Ray and Chris didn’t want to have Marcus burned at the stake for “gaycraft”, or waterboarded in Holy Water… or something. Drake’s “you can’t ‘catch’ gay” speech at the station might have been innovative TV in 1981, or even 1991. But the same speech today just made me roll my eyes. It came off like something cribbed from an after school special. Imagine watching a prime-time drama in the USA in 2008 and hearing a character say “black people are people, just like whites! They have families! They have dreams!”. Yes, we all agree on that. Even the most racist among us know that black people are indeed people. We finally gave up the fiction that they might not be in the 1960s; hearing a speech saying just that 40 years later would be a bit… childish, I think. And the scene at the end of this episode – where Alex spots Kaposi’s sarcoma on Marcus, thus foreshadowing the arrival of the AIDS epidemic in Britain – was just the little bit that pushed me over the edge. There was a film about the AIDS epidemic called And The Band Played On (based on a book of the same name). The film was nothing more than two hours of self-righteous speechifying by Matthew Modine’s character. This episode of Ashes to Ashes wasn’t nearly as blatant as And The Band Played On, but it was close, even though in 2008 it didn’t even have to be.

All this moralizing is in direct opposition to what made us fall in love with DCI Gene Hunt in the first place. Hunt is unabashedly of his time. He’ll slap a suspect around, then slap a female police officer on the ass on his way out of the interrogation room. He drinks whiskey and smokes cigarellos at his desk, then goes to a smoky pub for a lunch of sausages and mashed potatoes drenched in gravy. He thinks that John Wayne was the perfect male role model and his car really is an extension of his penis. He lives in an age before low-fat diets, carb counting menus, sexual harassment lawsuits, political correctness seminars, smoking bans, drug tests and talking about your feelings. Hunt doesn’t even know what “saturated fats” are, much less give a damn about them. Hunt has a dark streak in him, a prejudice that automatically assumes that “darkies” are criminals, that “poofters” are depraved perverts and women police officers are only there to get him coffee and jiggle on demand. But yet, there’s an inherent goodness in him, an ability to see past his own prejudices and eventually do the right thing. Hunt’s the kind of cop that would beat a black suspect senseless, but once he found out that the black guy was framed, he’d dedicate himself to finding the actual perpetrators with a vengeance like something out of the Old Testament. As mentioned in previous recaps, Hunt also has a spidey sense and intelligence that Ray and Chris lack. Sure – Hunt would immediately suspect an illegal immigrant of a crime, but he’d also be the first to get a gut feeling that something wasn’t right about his suspicion. Where Chris and Ray would keep working immigrant until they found something they could hang on him, Hunt would realize that something didn’t add up. All this over-the-top moralizing in Ashes to Ashes creates a tension that wasn’t quite there in Life On Mars. We loved Hunt because of who he was: a simple-minded badass. But now we’ve got the writers making us feel bad for liking him.

OK, so that’s about it for today. However, I did one to point out one last thing about Ashes, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The writers have a true gem in Montserrat Lombard, who plays Shaz Granger in the show. She’s a young WPC (Woman Police Constable) that apparently has a little “thing” going on with Chris. She’s cute, she’s bright and she knows far more about the world than you’d expect her to. And she’s woefully underutilized in Ashes to Ashes. She’s mainly used for comic relief – like last week when she ruined Ray and Chris’s big reveal by knowing the name of an obscure left-wing group. She’s also used as a foil with Chris; where Chris represents the “old school” way of thinking, Shaz gently explains the “modern” view of things, like women’s rights, to him. The only problem is that that’s all her character is used for. In last week’s “reveal ruiner”, she was sitting at her desk when Chris and Ray came in with big smiles on their faces. They’re proud to have figured out that “RWF” stood for “Revolutionary Worker’s Front”. But before they can tell anyone that, Shaz says “RWF? You mean the Revolutionary Worker’s Front? My dad was big into the trade unions, so that’s how I know”. Shaz then walks off, only to more or less disappear for the rest of the episode. It’s a shame, because I think Shaz would make a great addition to the show. Well, more than she’s used now, that is.

MUSIC HEARD IN THIS EPISODE:

Madness – “One Step Beyond”
Simple Minds -“I Travel”
XTC – “Sgt. Rock”
Killing Joke – “Turn To Red”
Donna Summer – “I Feel Love”
John Davis & The Monster Orchestra – “Love Magic”
The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me”
Sarah Brightman & Hot Gossip – “I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper”
Soft Cell – “Where Did Our Love Go?”

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