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TV Weekend: Copper

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BBC America

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.

10 comments
David Owens
David Owens like.author.displayName 1 Like

Isn't it strange that the people reviewing the new shows never seem to click with me?  I loved this show, and I love Hell on Wheels.  They're both immediately better than anything Hollywood has been remaking, like... The Three Stooges, Red Dawn, or Charlie's Angels.  I find Copper to be gritty, intriguing, and an outstanding addition to my evening.  

I just don't think the reviewers, like most of Hollywood, are in touch with reality.

Mickey Logan
Mickey Logan

Meh. Not a single establishing or wide shot in the whole thing. If I wanted permanent myopia I'd get ocular surgery.

awi5951
awi5951

Man i love this show it's great. Your just a stuck up critic with no life with a wife that's doing your stepson.  Why do critics compare shows to one another? Is the show good or not is it original or not?  That's all we want to know from you.  Every show in every gen has a better. Whats your damn point?  Is the cosby show better than married with children? Who the hell cares they are both great shows in their own respect leave it at that.

Eric Baca
Eric Baca

 

My wife forgot to set Copper to record on the DVR, but I was

able to watch it at Dish Online. Even on my IPad the outside scenes all look

like a green screen but like you said if the story is good enough you won’t

care. I love the plot I just don’t know why they wouldn’t spend more money on

BBC America’s first original series. The clothes look far too new (not dirty at

all) for the five points setting. One of my coworkers at Dish suggested I watch

this show, but I think I will wait until I see this weeks episode before I say

thank you.

MEHerald
MEHerald

Was looking forward to a period drama about this time in America but was disappointed by the production values. The whole thing was obviously set on a sound stage, (even thought I saw the vibration of a green screen backdrop at one point), Not what I expect from BBC quality, honestly.

Costumes too clean, and set too dirty.

Plus, really(?), "poor people" running to gather a bucket of compost from the gutter...? If we had our working poor in such bad straights in Five Points, acting like feral rats, we never would have had an industrial revolution. Poverty does not mean a lack of dignity or intelligence.The writing was interesting, but am bewildered by the British fascination with the American stereotype of the Wild West Mentality, "Everyman for himself, and outsider saves the damsel"...

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Bletch
Bletch

@MEHerald I read a book of the history of the five points...this is actually tame compared to the realities of NY in that era. As far as the Industrial revolution, you are correct, they left out the child labor and the thousands that died from poor work conditions, safety hazards and starvation and fires. Just sayin'

lucelucy
lucelucy

 Replying to me - checking to see if I could Disqus on Firefox - it had been locking me out.  I think it was add-ons.  Now to see if I can fix the sitch permanently.

lucelucy
lucelucy

Yeah, I read a downer column in the NYT with similar qualms.  I'll put it on DVR somehow - let's see - we can switch Political Animals to the early Monday am showing and then maybe - what is it with Sunday night?  Have I missed the memo where everyone is ordered out of the house on all other nights of the week?

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Aw, bummer. This sounded right up my (Paradise) alley as well. A show about cops in 19th century New York?! By Homicide vets?! That's a Jules Winnfield show for me. ("Sh*t, brother, that's all you had to say!")

A child prostitution story, ooof.... I've set the DVR to record this, though, and will try to give it a big chance.

Another upcoming JW show for me is Last Resort; hope that one holds up to closer inspection!

James Poniewozik
James Poniewozik

 Well, I'm MUCH more a fan of the Last Resort pilot, tho I have not seen anything beyond that.