It would be hard to describe a TV series I would be more predisposed to like than BBC America’s Copper, debuting Sunday. Grimy, unromanticized historical fiction? Check. Story with a familiar period (the Civil War) and a familiar genre (the police procedural) livened up by using a less-familiar setting for both (Civil War-era New York City)? Check. Outstanding creative team (Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, of Homicide and Oz)? Check.
So when I say that I was disappointed with the two episodes I’ve seen—really more of a double-length pilot episode—it’s partly relative to my expectations. Those were further heightened by the fact that Copper is the first original U.S. production for BBC America; considering how many recent British shows have expanded the possibilities of the cop procedural (Sherlock, Luther), I’d have thought the bar would be set high for this production.
Instead, Copper so far feels flat and undistinguished, a series that might have seemed novel on cable five or ten years ago, but now feels surprisingly unsurprising. It introduces us to Irish NYC cop Kevin “Corky” Corcoran, a Civil War vet who suffered a family tragedy while he was off fighting the Confederacy, and his war buddies: an uptown dandy, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), and Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African American doctor who secretly helps Corky solve cases. The general approach—tortured male (anti)hero with a dark past and ruthless methods—is standard-issue on cable now. The specifics, especially Corky’s backstory, feel a lot like a citified Hell on Wheels. Call it Hell on Foot.
Like Hell on Wheels (also returning, for an improved-but-not-by-a-ton second season), the show suffers in comparison to predecessors. The series aims to be a grand tour of 19th-century New York, from the scummy back streets to the polished townhouses uptown—from Gangs of New York to House of Mirth. But simply from a production standpoint, this is hard to pull off well if you don’t have a Martin Scorsese budget, or even an HBO one. I generally believe that a good story can allow you to immerse yourself in the shabbiest production, but the production quality here is just unfortunate: the exterior New York scenes couldn’t look more like a soundstage if the camera panned to the craft-services table.
Yet Copper’s story could, potentially, be absorbing and distinctive enough to make you look past that. There’s a lot here, starting with the novelty (from our perspective) of police work in the 1860s, long before Miranda rights and DNA analysis. Morehouse and his well-connected family provide entree to the story of the 1864 Presidential election, in which the already-torn nation was struggling over how best to resolve the war. And potentially, the life of Freeman and his family, in pre-Harlem upper Manhattan, could be a fascinating look at an underexplored part of America’s racial history, like Chalky White’s Atlantic City neighborhood in Boardwalk Empire.
But while the opening episodes set up this material, they don’t do much with it, getting bogged down in a sensationalistic, but not especially well-plotted, child-prostitution story. And owing to some stilted dialogue and indistinguishable performances—it will take a while, at times, figuring out which muttonchopped male is who—none of the characters come across as memorable individuals. There’s an intelligence to the opening hours of Copper, but not much of a voice.
Still, the show has enough raw ingredients, enough potential in its ideas, and a strong enough creative team that it deserves more patience than I’d otherwise give it. The beginning of Copper puts a lot of elements into its sepia photograph. Let’s hope it can make that picture move.