The third and final series of the BBC's Ashes to Ashes is about half way through now and, from the outset, it's been one of the highlights of my viewing week. I wasn't sure it would be. Like its predecessor show, Life on Mars, it has an unlikely premise and the previous two series had both taken some time to get into their stride.
Life on Mars told the story of Sam Tyler, a modern-day police officer who, having been hit by a car, is left in a coma and/or, depending on your viewpoint, is spirited back through time to 1973. There he finds his modern, forensics-driven policing methods are completely out of step with the politically incorrect views and methods of his DCI, Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). The show made a star out of John Simm (possibly better known now as the latest incarnation of the Master in Doctor Who!) and the thought of having to recreate the success of the show without him must have been a daunting prospect.
When the new show, Ashes to Ashes, was finally unveiled Simm's character Sam Tyler was replaced by D.I. Alex Drake (played by Keeley Hawes) and, this time, she was thrown back only as far as the 1980s. Gene Hunt was still her DCI and he had just as little time for her psychological profiling as he'd had for Tyler's forensic evidence. But ... something wasn't right. The first two series of the new show began with a couple of very uncertain episodes. In a bit of a funk, if you will. The writers and producers seemed to have forgotten just what had made the original show work.
The problem, I think, was that the reviews of Life on Mars kept saying how funny the show was. They were right, of course. The exchanges between Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt were often laugh-out-loud funny as Tyler's methodical approach and belief in restraint ran headlong into Hunt's belief in doing whatever was necessary to secure a conviction, even if that meant breaking down doors, trampling rough-shod over a suspect's rights and indulging in more than a little police brutality.
The humour, however, was only a part of the reason for the show's success. Life on Mars was never a comedy. Beneath the superficial banter, it was actually a very dark drama with layers of subtlety - a fact which seemed to escape the show's writers when they came to script the early episodes of Ashes to Ashes.
Unduly influenced by the critics, perhaps, they lost sight of the dark, edgy vein of reality and put all the emphasis on the humour. It became, in effect, little more than a substandard sitcom based in a police station. The low point was surely the sight of Keeley Hawes leaning over a desk and urging her colleagues to date stamp her backside. So far so Carry on Constable but, when her mother walked through the door at exactly that moment, the whole thing was reduced to the level of a woefully tired Brian Rix farce.
As the first series progressed it did become more serious and, by the end, it had successfully recaptured the spirit that had made Life on Mars such gripping TV. Good solid drama, made amusing by the sharply observed interactions between a group of cleverly drawn characters, rather than by the forced inclusion of a few moments of gratuitous slapstick. It was all the more surprising, then, that the second series chose to repeat the mistakes of the first. Once again the first few episodes seemed determined to play it for laughs. Fortunately for those viewers prepared to stick with it, the series rediscovered its sense of drama (again!) in time to treat us to a nail-biting finale in which Alex was shot by Gene Hunt.
Which brings us back to Series 3. I wasn't especially looking forward to it. After two series of Life on Mars and two of Ashes to Ashes, hadn't the premise of a 21st Century police officer running up against 20th Century police methods already run its course? Also, on past performance, at least the first two episodes were bound to disappoint. And, although the hype surrounding the programme had made much of the fact that this final series would reveal everything about Gene Hunt and his "role" in the whole time-travelling phenomenon, wouldn't that be better left unexplained?
Well, we'll have to wait a little longer for the answer to that last question but the one thing I can say is that, unlike its two predecessors, this final series has wasted no time in finding the right balance of humour and drama. From the very first episode it has tried to keep us wrong-footed and has shone a light on some very dark recesses of its characters' lives. And, as dark as it gets, it's never more than a couple of lines away from another classic Gene Hunt quote to lighten the tone.
There are four episodes of this series still to go and, since it's been billed as the final series, we can probably be confident that - just like Life on Mars - it will end properly, rather than leaving us to guess about the characters' fates. Leaving aside the question of just who or what Gene Hunt is supposed to be, the big question is whether Alex will succeed in escaping the 1980s and returning to the present. Unlike Sam Tyler (who chose to stay in 1973), the decision that Alex has to make in Life on Mars is far less clear-cut. Even if she did come to the conclusion that things were better in the past, she has a young daughter, Molly, waiting for her in the present. Whatever she decides, the series finale is promising to be a very bitter-sweet mix of tragedy and comedy. Now that's something really funky to look forward to!