“Ashes to Ashes,” which premieres tonight on BBC America, is a sequel to “Life on Mars,” the 2006 series whose American remake ABC has just canceled. It’s an unlikely thing, given that the first series’ main character killed himself in the final episode (though perhaps survived in another reality) and that all the other characters were (possibly) figments of his imagination. But it’s in that “perhaps” and “possibly” that “Ashes to Ashes” finds a way forward, and although it’s not as good as the original, it pushes many of the same buttons and sews on a few new ones. It’s quite enjoyable.
“Life on Mars” told the story of Manchester police detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) who, stuck in a coma in 2006, “wakes up” in 1973; at the end of a second season, he comes out of the coma, only to find that the present has lost its flavor and jumps off a building to get back to a livelier past. It was a show about television and the cultural change television embodies, a time-traveling parody/ critique of old-style police dramas that was itself an old-style police drama, marking the distance between today’s cold forensic procedurals and the brawny action series of the 1970s, but also in changing ways of living, and what was gained and what was lost.
“Ashes to Ashes,” which like its predecessor takes its name from a David Bowie song released in the year it’s set, has less on its mind. More than anything, it’s an expression of the success of its predecessor and particularly of the wild popularity of Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt, a pre-PC, righteous thug of a detective chief inspector who returns here with junior team members Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) and Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), now permed. This is a machine to keep Gene Hunt on television; I can’t argue with that.
It is 1981 now, and Hunt and company have moved down to London, where they do or do not reside inside the head of female Detective Inspector Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes). A trained psychologist who in 2008 had been studying the files of the late Sam Tyler, she has Tyler’s 1973 friends ready to go when, shot in the line of duty, she awakens at the dawn of Thatcherism in his old job and predicament. Tyler has died in this timeline as well, after surviving his own suicide by seven years.
Drake is convinced, not that it really matters, that this new old world is “a conscious construct induced by severe cranial trauma” experienced in the seconds before she lives or dies. As did Tyler, she regards everything around her as both imaginary and beyond her control, unreal and yet substantial. And though her experiences mirror his -- she gets mixed up with her mother (Amelia Bullmore), a high-powered anti-establishment lawyer, is haunted by an evil spirit guide in the form of the Pierrot figure from Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” video and drinks a lot -- the dread that infused “Life on Mars” is largely missing here, replaced by a kind of spiky bantering comedy between Drake and Hunt that owes something to such ‘80s detective shows as “Moonlighting” and “Remington Steele” but is far more vulgar. She’s the sort of copper who’ll say a suspect “doesn’t possess delegational inclinations,” and he’s the sort who’ll say something I can’t write here.
The look of the series reflects its time in certain stylized shots and lighting effects, while Drake dresses in unlikely off-the-shoulder tops and painted-on designer jeans. Where the Manchester police station was dark and brutal, the London headquarters is all glass and light, with a checkerboard floor and ceiling for that “Alice Through the Looking Glass” touch, and the beery pub the detectives frequented has been switched out for an Italian restaurant, where everyone drinks wine.
The Britain of 1981 offers a polarized backdrop of anarchists and yuppies (whose materialistic villainy seems particularly, if accidentally, timely), with florid New Romantics in between. The Royal Wedding makes a cameo, and there are shout-outs to Pong and the neutron bomb, along with a soundtrack dominated by jittery post-punk and synth-pop.