Ripper Street Series Premiere Review: CSI: Dickens

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Ripper Street S01E01: "I Need Light"

I first thought the series premiere of the BBC’s Ripper Street aired last night here in the states, two weeks after its English premiere, because of the delay caused by time zones. Turns out I was wrong, and the difference is only about eight hours, not multiple days. My apologies to the Queen. Set in sooty Victorian in 1889, a good six months after the latest Jack the Ripper murder, this period outing uses the notorious serial killer's terrorizing of foggy ol’ London Town as the backdrop for a procedural crime drama. Having forensically dissected the pilot episode (YES I tossed the viscera in a filthy wash bin), I prognose that Ripper Street’s historical setting can only breathe so much new life into an achingly familiar formula. "I Need Light" succeeded most when updating obscure technology and arcane social conventions via clever involvement in the mystery-of-the-week format (i.e. collodion porno clues and meat pie red herrings), but it still had a ways to go in striking a balance between accuracy and creative exaggeration. It seems Ripper Street will be best indulgently consumed as a dramatic rendition of a story from one of those complimentary books old-town ghost tours give out: a bluntly told tale plotted with moments of shameless, real-world gawk-fodder.

Thankfully the actors are amazing: The three leads, Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy from the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice), Jerome Flynn (Bronn from Game of Thrones), and Adam Rothenberg (primetime day player who deserves more roles) come fully formed as a colorful investigative unit. Macfadyen as the real-life figure Edmund Reid imbues his scenes with a passion far greater than lines about rookeries should allow, while Flynn as secret bare-knuckle boxer and Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake butts heads nicely with Rothenberg’s ex-Pinkerton ladies' man autopsist Homer Jackson. Helping the premise along (at least for this first episode) is the concept that a mysterious threat can damage the health of a community (terrorism much?) and the question of how much responsibility information gatekeepers hold in deciding transparency. It’s a welcome angle on what’s mostly just CSI: Dickens, and the pilot attempted to raise the stakes on Reid with the threat of both the local newspaper and his professional superior moving to credit the murder of a violinist to Jack the Ripper when doing so could rile the masses. Fair enough, but we never got a strong, single character representative of the chaos that would ensue following such news. Just an angry mob that, I guess, could get even angrier? Oh, mobs.

As a pilot crime, the one featured in "I Need Light" offered plenty of satisfying twists and turns, beginning with a Jane Doe alley mutilation and ending in the private snuff film set of a local porn king. In other words, an innocent girl in search of erotic work was murdered, and her death was made to look as though it was a Ripper slaying. In a story that connected and condemned sexuality to a violent, villainous end, it’s unfortunate that the show itself benefitted from both, yet skewed closer in intention to the evildoers its heroes sought to bring to justice. I’m not saying a show about Victorian criminal investigators shouldn’t feature literal guts, but sex and violence have always been hot-button issues, and the fact that the Ripper killings naturally brought the two together offers a chance for something new to be said about the relationship between them. It's frustrating that instead, the program wiped its mitts clean of that opportunity.

Moving forward, there’s still plenty to explore outside the crime-of-the-week setup (guttersnipe cannibals? chimney-sweep cults?), including Reid’s tense relationship with his wife, the mystery of their deceased daughter, Jackson’s illicit American backstory, and a possible romance between Drake and Long Susan. Also, since Reid was a real-life historical person, I hope the series touches on his actual membership in the distinguished Balloon Association of Great Britain (which sadly no longer exists) and the fact that at one point he was awarded the Druids Gold Medal as a "Druid of Distinction." Plenty of interesting things to play around with.

Like the crime scene detective investigating a seemingly clueless site, at first glance it seems that Ripper Street is another straightforward cash-in on popular literary updates (though this one didn’t come from a book, Jack the Ripper is famous enough to seem book-like); however, solid performers and an expansion of its world could lead to an enjoyable product. Just less guts, if you please, sir.

FURTHER QUESTIONING:

1. What did you think?

2. What is your most/least favorite thing about Ripper Street so far?

3. What will make this show better?

4. How can this show be a runaway success?

5. How would we add a well-rounded female character to this series who isn't a proper doting wife or troubled Victorian trollop?

6. Will you continue watching Ripper Street?

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