Archive for Saturday, March 7, 2009

‘Ashes’ improves on ‘Life on Mars’

March 7, 2009

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The 1970s give way to the 80s as the British drama “Ashes to Ashes” (8 p.m. today, BBC America) picks up threads from the acclaimed and imitated series “Life on Mars.” For those who missed those decades and their soundtracks, both titles are lifted from David Bowie songs.

The action on “Ashes” begins in London in 2008, when Detective Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is shot in an encounter with a homeless man and former drug kingpin. Rather than die or end up in the hospital, she awakens in 1981, in the midst of a drug raid staged by gruff Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), a familiar face from “Life on Mars.”

Drake quickly becomes part of Hunt’s team, adjusting to the era of New Wave and New Romantic music and brick-sized Walkman personal sound systems as she tries to figure out a way back to 2008.

Drake’s maternal yearnings to return to her daughter’s side give her quest a greater emotional urgency than that of Sam Tyler, the lost-in-1973 central figure from “Life on Mars.” And, as a woman, Drake is more at sea in a police department slow and begrudging in its acceptance of female officers. Like “Life,” this series can be appreciated as a science-fiction puzzle and a psychological quest, and for its juxtaposition of 21st-century attitudes with pre-feminist and un-PC mores.

It’s an interesting irony that “Ashes” makes its American debut in the same week that ABC announced the cancellation of its version of “Life on Mars.” The American series will get to finish out its first season with a finale and narrative wrap-up. American viewers who want to move on to the 1980s, and watch the slow evolution of Inspector Hunt, are left with only “Ashes” now.

• In “Breaking Bad” (9 p.m. Sunday, AMC, entering its second season), Bryan Cranston (“Malcolm in the Middle”) turns in a remarkable and memorable performance as Walt White, a high school chemistry teacher afflicted with a series of misfortunes that rival those of the Old Testament’s Job.

His teenage son has cerebral palsy. His wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), becomes unexpectedly pregnant at 40, just when Walt develops inoperable lung cancer. To make ends meet and not saddle his family with crushing medical bills, he conspires with a slacker former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to become a methamphetamine dealer.

Walt’s life of quiet desperation can be seen as a metaphor for the over-leveraged middle class. Or as a cry against a criminally rigged system that forces Americans to choose between medical care and bankruptcy. Or it can be seen as an example of good scriptwriting and excellent acting in pursuit of a story that is frequently too grim to endure.

Today’s highlights

• Dwayne Johnson hosts “Saturday Night Live” (10:30 p.m., NBC), featuring musical guest Ray LaMontagne.

Sunday’s highlights

• Scheduled on “60 Minutes” (6 p.m., CBS): the FDIC and troubled banks; DNA evidence that contradicts eye-witness testimony.

• After Homer defaults on his mortgage, Flanders becomes his landlord on “The Simpsons” (7 p.m., Fox).

• The guys plan a gig in New York’s Little New Zealand district on “Flight of the Conchords” (9 p.m., HBO).

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