Checking in on Copper: Life on the Streets (of 1864)

Copper S01E01–S01E04: "Surviving Death," "Husband and Fathers," "In the Hands of an Angry God," and "The Empty Locket"

Now more than ever, we television viewers have access to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to shows set in historical times. Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, and Hell on Wheels, among others, have all proven an interest in using the norms of the past as a relative metaphor for the present. But what about those of us who are happy just visiting a foregone era without a lot of thematic heavy lifting? Gaslights, spilled harlot cleavage, drinking songs, muck, the word "boy-o"—Copper delivers exactly what it promises and nothing more in the best way possible. The procedural from Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz creator Tom Fontana, plus vets Barry Levinson and Will Rokos, is set in 1864 New York and basically a solid police drama, with all the genre's hard-boiled one-liners, gruesome crimes, and tortured heroes, covered in soot and caked in the blood of our nation's legacy. At its best, this first original series from BBC America uses the hopeless nature of slum living and accepted corruptness of the law to show that even heroes have dirty hands.

Our guide through the seedy community of Five Points New York is Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an orphaned, Irish Civil war vet haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his wife and the death of his six-year-old daughter. Also he was raised a boxer, which definitely helps him loosen up his share of clues. Joining "Corky" is best friend and follow detective Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), ex-war Doctor Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), and wealthy businessman/former war buddy Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), along with a rogues gallery of prostitutes, shopkeepers, beggars, and law enforcement brass. There are no weak links in the bunch and outside of the always-welcome protagonist Corcoran (imagine Tom Hardy from Wuthering Heights meets Leonardo DiCaprio from, uh, Gangs of New York), each character is used like a spice—sparingly and effectively.

In the first four episodes, Corcoran investigates a child prostitute's death, gets his leg broken for digging too deep, murders a socialite, uncovers the truth behind a racially charged hanging, and roughs up a corrupt man of the cloth in his own church. While all this is going on, he also tracks down a locket once belonging to his absentee wife—the only clue to her current whereabouts. There are assassinated abortion doctors, emotional opium hallucinations, a murder motivated by the craftsmanship of a suit, trollop-on-trollop throat-slitting, and at least one prosthetic limb used in a bar fight. Yup, this is 1864.

Copper expertly balances these realistic case-of-the-week investigations with an over-arching plot involving the back-room land-grab of Five Points, and a budding romance between Corcoran and the rich woman he widowed, Elizabeth Haverford (Once Upon a Time's Kathryn Nolan). Whereas a modern-day procedural might lose focus while diverging into the worlds of one-off witnesses (how interesting is a person who owns a deli in 2012?), each one of Copper's peripheral character—be they maid or guttersnipe—builds the world without losing steam.

Copper is a lot of fun and doesn't really need to change a thing to keep hitting its own designated marks. Occasionally, the somewhat modern (TV) crime-solving format is so committed to mystery tropes (i.e. red herrings, forensic sessions, etc.) that it doesn't take full advantage of its historical setting, but you don't complain about a cat because it's not a dog. It's a cat! If, however, Copper wishes to go above and beyond the call of duty (a.k.a. be more than a new take on a familiar genre), stylized cinematography and music beyond old-timey Irish strings certainly wouldn't hurt any. For now, though, I'm happy walking the beat with Corcoran.

Have you been watching Copper? If so, what do you think?

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