By the end of its first season, Copper had provided the solution to a great many mysteries, but one it never quite resolved is why anyone would want to set a crime drama in this particular place and time. (Still set in the Five Points area—Gangs Of New York territory—the new season opens in February of 1865, a few months after the events of the previous season.) It doesn’t help that some of the obvious possibilities seem to have no appeal to the makers of this very show. It can’t be that they want to explore what police work was like more than a century before the development of modern forensics; the hero, Detective Kevin “Corky” Corcoran, has a best friend who, like the Leonardo Da Vinci of Da Vinci’s Demons, is practically a prehistoric CSI genius, capable of reading a dead body as if it were already a fully prepared autopsy report written in block letters.
Nor is the show really interested in using the procedural format to depict life, as it really was, in an earlier period of American history. The best friend, Matthew Freeman, is black, as is his wife, Sara. Sara dislikes New York, and distrusts whites, because her brothers were lynched during the Draft Riots that intruded so weirdly on the climax of Gangs Of New York. You might think that a period show would be reluctant to even allude to a historical reality like lynching unless it was going to respect the scary land mine that living in America might have been for a black person a century and a half ago. But Matthew, like a timer traveler who forgets to make allowances for the era he’s visiting, carries himself with a surreal impatience toward white men who are more socially secure yet stupider than himself. When he has reason to be upset with a young white cop who’s supposed to be guarding his house, the cop asks him, imploringly, “C’mon, Doc. At least be a good nigger about it.” Matthew replies, “You have got to be kidding me,” like a modern New Yorker who can’t believe that the superintendent of his building hasn’t done anything about his leaky ceiling yet. Not to be outdone, the supposedly fearful Sara slaps the guy across his face.
The season premiere begins with Corky out for a jog in a field, sparring and spitting, and then meeting a beautiful, albeit CGI-looking, deer. Corky, who generally fits into the 1860s a lot better than Matthew does, but who is sometimes prone to fits of modern sensibility and political correctness that also make him seem a man out of time, is transfixed by the thing, and seems to bond with it on a spiritual level. Then some peckerwood with a gun comes out of the tall grass and blows it away. This woman, who has just done her best to disillusion Corky from any idea that the untamed countryside is some Rousseauian Eden, is cutting open the deer and pulling out its entrails when she remarks that “the city” is “a nasty place altogether.” Just to make it clear that the show doesn’t disagree with her, there’s a cut to what Corky is jogging back to: Special guest villain Buzzy Burke, leaning over the likeably hard-bitten madam Eva, using a huge knife to carve his initials into her back.
Corky goes after Buzzy with the full encouragement of the the Boss of the Sixth Ward, General Brendan Donovan (Donal Logue), who visits the Five Points’ finest and tells them what he’s been reading about them in the newspapers: That there are cops who’ve been seen “refusing to enforce the Sunday closing laws, egging on fights instead of interceding, and, in essence, aiding and abetting in the full-on spectacle that is Satan’s circus.” A young policeman, seriously misunderstanding the General’s tone, grins and says, “Sounds like a grand old time, all right!” Without knowing it, he has just volunteered for the audience participation portion of the evening, during which the General selects someone whose attitude needs adjusting and stomps a mud hole in his ass. In a speech that does a spin on Charles Foster Kane’s line about the importance of using his newspapers to protect the interest of those without power or money, or else someone without power and money might decide to do the job instead, General Donovan explains that he isn’t against a little “honest graft,” but that self-made men like himself have to put on a respectable façade, so as to not make it too easy for the snobs and the landed gentry to unite against them. Toward that end, he is eager to see justice done to the “reprobate” Buzzy Burke, who was once able to get away with (literal) murder because he was of use to the gang at Tammany Hall, but who has made himself less valuable as a consequence of having come to believe “his own malarkey.”
At its liveliest, Copper just seems to be set when and where it’s set so that people who say things like “reprobate” and “malarkey” can battle feral psychos who, doing their best to hold their ends up, curl their mustaches and say things like “pugilist.” (There’s a priceless moment when the heroes think they’ve found their man, only to be disappointed: “It’s not Buzzy Burke.” No, “It’s Bug-Eyed Boyle!” Someone must have decided this wasn’t enough local color for a season premiere, because there’s also this instant eulogy: “There’s a Five Points way to die: In the gutter, with a dog chewin’ your balls off.”) But in its first season, the show also had grand story-telling ambitions, with many-threaded conspiracies and multiple plot lines converging and coming to a boil, and this tendency has not been abandoned. Francis Maguire, Corky’s close friend, police partner, and betrayer, is released from custody, on the verge of being tried for three murders, and the shadowy whispers surrounding this development make it appear that he may be the new Buzzy Burke, a cog in God knows what vile machinery that the powers that be are revving up.
Buzzy’s death also gives Eva the chance to step in and become a monopoly player in the area’s high-end whore business, a lucky break for everyone who works under her. Other events are transpiring to make Matthew a prominent general physician, replacing the white doctor who trained him. The prospect of Matthew offering his services to the white community at large should give the show a chance to either get real or embarrass itself really badly in its depiction of race relations. When it first appeared, Copper seemed most promising as a costume police procedural, and it still is. (And the show, which has a large and erratic cast, is most engaging when Tom Weston-Jones, who plays Corky, and Franka Potente, as Eva, are front and center. It’s at its dullest, and worst-acted, when dealing with the scandalous romance of Corky’s uptown friend Robert Morehouse—a nineteenth-century Harry Osborn—and Elizabeth Haverford.)
This episode is Copper at its liveliest, because the manhunt for a rampaging killer, while not exactly a model of narrative intricacy, crowds out most everything else and generates some excitement. The second season will keep pace with, and improve on, the first if the detective-hero stories and the larger historical-conspiracy plot that seems to be taking shape function together. The danger is that, as often happened in the first season, the show’s thriller side is smothered in a blanket of attempted commentary on a society that the show doesn’t even depict very accurately. It’s not yet clear yet whether that will happen again, just as it remains to be seen whether General Donovan’s interest in the workings of the police department will prove a help or a hindrance to good cops like Corky, or whether Donal Logue will be able to bring his full, scruffy charm to the show, or if his personality will get chewed up in his accent and entangled in his thick period beard.