Copper debuts tonight on BBC America at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The seedier side of 19th century New York City, apparently a hotbed of crime, pestilence, and racial tension, has always held a certain appeal, but has never been explored in film and television with the same fervor and depth as London during roughly the same period (think Charles Dickens and the like). Copper, the first original program from BBC America, seeks to rectify that with a period show that is unafraid to shy away from violence, politics, and, most surprisingly of all, the burgeoning art of forensic psychology! The opening sequence conveys the melding of these styles most efficiently, with antique illustrations of Gangs Of New York-style riots and gun battles, luxuriously mutton-chopped men, and other images of the city stained by long drips of ridiculous digital blood and ripped-from-the-procedurals dirty damning fingerprints. While the idea of a detective show set in 1864 Five Points is fresh, the approach—with its tortured male protagonist and haphazardly thrown-in historical politics—is not, despite the lauded creative team behind it: Filmmakers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, who previously collaborated on Oz.
The show starts with an anonymous eyeball watching through wooden slats as street urchins scramble for discarded slop on the ground, and a man with one stump-for-a-foot wrapped in dirty bandages goes by on crutches. Aside from the annoyingly de rigueur shaky camerawork (shorthand for “it’s about to get real up in here”), the setpiece is shot exceedingly well, but if the extras were any more rigidly choreographed, they’d be straight out of a low-budget American Oliver!. Our hero, Irish-American detective Kevin Corcoran blows on his gun, cracks then peels a hardboiled egg as lumps of people start to stir in the hay bales around him. One, a very young girl with disturbing sexual knowledge named Annie, inspires a moment of concerned sympathy in “Corky,” who came home from the Civil War two months ago to find his young daughter murdered and his wife mysteriously absent. Soon, however, he receives the signal to run down a gang of bank robbers—but it’s not the last he’ll see of Annie. The meeting sets off a journey through the underworld of Manhattan crime that slowly reveals more of Corky’s character and past, including his unlikely relationships with Robert Morehouse, a wealthy once-war officer, now one-legged layabout, and Matthew Freeman, an exceedingly talented black surgeon who assists Corcoran in secret as the police officer’s superiors would never heed the work of an “uppity negro,” as Detective Maguire (who bears a distinctly Jeremy Sisto-esque look) once refers to him.
Some reviews, like this one from The Los Angeles Times, have described Corcoran as a straightforward good guy, but I have to disagree. While he obviously has a moral conscience of sorts, one that has been heightened by his encounter with Annie because she reminds him of his own daughter, Corky is hardly above typical bad-cop behavior like skimming off the top and beating innocent-until-proven-guilty for answers—and he rarely looks sorry about it. Despite his paternal passion for Annie, in other situations Corky can be downright insensitive, like when Freeman shares the story story of his brothers-in-law being hung from the lamppost in front of his house during the draft riots, and Corcoran impatiently responding with “We’ve all of us heard screams, Matthew.” That is like the Civil War-era equivalent of creaking out a “bummer” while shrugging your shoulders.
It’s difficult to determine if these flaws are embedded in Corcoran’s character for the purposes of complexity, or if it is simply inconsistent work on the part of the show’s writers. Copper may have decent budget and cast, but there’s a definite scripting problem going on, particularly when it comes to the dialogue. In the scene where Corcoran first visits Morehouse, the latter clumsily spouts some background story about being a Harvard boy and an officer in the war in the same Regiment as the detective, then mentions that Corky saved his life three times, as if for the benefit of viewers who may have missed this key bit of exposition the first time around. This show may walk like some high quality Masterpiece Classic fare on trigger-happy steroids, but boy, it certainly doesn’t talk that way. Furthermore, the show may be putting too fine a point on too many different historical issues of the time, perfunctorily wedging them in in an effort to give the show some breadth and depth, rushing through allusions to the draft riots or unemployment rates in order to leave the bulk of the time for ol’ Corky’s butt kicking and scheming under the nose of the Sarge and such.
When Morehouse and his stiff crony Winfred Haverford aren’t acting shady in a super fancy brothel, they’re discussing the issues of the day with urgent, expository joylessness. It is obvious that the purpose of their roles is to keep the larger political discussion going, but will the show continue to have rich white men talk about what is going on in their city, or begin to actually show it? The African American community, of course hugely invested in the war and its outcome, couldn’t be treated as more of a side dish to the entreé of Corky’s wild-haired antics. It’s great that this show even dips into the question of what it was like for free black men and women in New York City during this time when emancipation had not yet been achieved and recent riots left them fearful and disenfranchised. But the fact that Freeman’s fascinating question of having to move to an all-black neighborhood way uptown to keep his anxious wife safe is shunted to the side does not bode well for how inclusive the show might be in the future.
Copper finds better success aesthetically, providing a new visual vernacular for 19th-century narratives, a period show with the greenish-grey tinge of a crime drama or post-apocalyptic epic rather than the creamy, rich color of a Wharton romance. The highly stylized nature of the bloodshed also sets this show apart from other stories set in the era; like a high-end genre film, people bleed out in a cinematic blaze of glory, with a mist of blood erupting from the chest or a quick paint splatter from the back of the head onto the wall behind them, gory but lovely in its abstracted way. The most intriguing element, however, is the depiction of how forensic work was conducted before things like inexpensive photography were widely available, let alone the likes of DNA testing. When Corky shows Freeman the corpse of a victim of blunt-force trauma, the surgeon makes a sketch of the bruising to try and determine what weapon was used. That’s just adorable. Later, he wraps a piece of clay around a model of a human head and hits it with various things until he can tell what caused the injury. BADASS.
The unique premise and placement of Copper continues to offer some thrills which I hope won’t become mired down by an overstuffed, badly balanced plot. As the child-prostitution-ring story and necessary setup that fill the first two episodes draw to a close, perhaps the narrow focus on Corcoran’s personal drama will shift to include more of the fragile, electrified world in which he lives. I would be very upset to be robbed of the opportunity to learn more about the low-fi crime solving methods of the mid 1800s, the history of marginalized communities in New York during this revolutionary time as the Civil War gradually petered out, and to hear more salty detective talk along the lines of “May the pox rob both your dicks.”
- So these bank robbers don’t even find some kind of safe house to take their loot, they just haul ass to a public courtyard, throw their money on the ground like girls forming a circle around their purses at a club, then root around in it like pigs? That doesn’t seem like a very good plan.
- Haverford’s wife pays an unexpected visit to Corky and says “promise me Kate Riley’s murder will be avenged,” then walks out the door. Who would demand a promise of someone, then leave before the other person actually promises fuck all?
- Based on how repetitive the dialogue already tends to be—in addition to the heroic myth the show is trying to build around Kevin Corcoran—you can just tell this “don’t be too smart” business the sergeant says to Corky in the beginning of the episode is going to be a major theme of the show.
- Ditto on the line “Things are different for people like them than they are for people like us, and there’s bloody nought you could do about it,” delivered to Corky from an unscrupulous but oddly loyal fall guy from his prison cell.