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Ripper Street: TV Review

Ripper Street' (BBC America)
BBC America

The Bottom Line

This riveting new twist on the Jack the Ripper tale is no staid costume drama.

Airdate

9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19 (BBC America)

Cast

Matthew Macfadyen, Jerome Flynn, Adam Rothenberg

BBC America's mystery series in Jack the Ripper-era London wins on great writing and casting.

It might be a bittersweet success story that BBC America is airing the magnetic and intriguing new series Ripper Street, which makes a show that could be distant kin — Copper — pale by comparison.

Copper was BBC America’s first original scripted drama, while Ripper Street comes from the BBC. Both are gritty and bloody and seem to be soaked in the dark streets of long ago, when candles illuminated any number of grizzly crime discoveries.

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Where Copper, created by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, is set in 1864 New York City, Ripper Street is set in London’s notorious East End, circa 1889, and in the close wake of Jack the Ripper’s brutal (and unsolved) killing spree.

Although Copper is muddier and cruder — even New York in the new world wasn’t quite up to the standards of London — there was something just slightly off about it. The first few episodes were stilted and the acting weaker than expected (or needed), though later episodes improved, and a second season has been ordered.

In contrast, Ripper Street is riveting right from the start, with a great cast featuring Matthew Macfadyen (MI-5, Pride & Prejudice), Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones) and Adam Rothenberg (Alcatraz), an American actor in what is likely to be his breakout role.

Part of what makes Ripper Street so interesting is that it’s not entirely what you think it would be. The conceit is that the Ripper has disappeared, and now people are making money off the legend, and the press keeps fueling it. The pilot features a murder where it looks like Jack is back, and the immediate worry of Inspector Edmund Reid (Macfadyen) is to contain hysteria until there’s proof. He’s in charge of H Division, where a lot of awful things happen in East London. Trying to mop up the place would get exceedingly more difficult if Jack was back.

The pilot lets you know that it’s the fear of the Ripper that cows the people who live there and emboldens the nefarious types to own the night. That’s why when a new body is found, sliced precisely like a few of the Ripper’s targets, Inspector Reid doesn’t want the newspapers to go wild again. “I must be sure before that hell rises up again,” he says.

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He’s aided in his work by Sergeant Bennet Drake (Flynn), who’s more brawn to Reid’s brains (though you wouldn’t want to mess with Reid, either). The duo is helped immensely by Captain Homer Jackson (Rothenberg), a former Pinkerton detective and U.S. Army surgeon with a shady past. Jackson is an expert in -- are you ready for this, CSI fans? -- “early forensics,” so he’s often called on by Reid to help out on murder cases.

Jackson had some type of “incident” in the U.S. and essentially is on the run in England, hiding out among the grime of East London where no one would go. He’s in league with Long Susan Hart (MyAnna Buring), who runs a brothel, and was part of whatever “incident” occurred in Jackson’s past.

Ripper Street was shot in Ireland and has a combination of openness and expansiveness that Copper lacks while still containing that grim, bleak nighttime feel -- that sense that once you step around a corner, you could get knifed and never found. The bars are not as dank as Copper, but then again, England was well ahead of us in pub comfort.

Both shows have that nearly tangible feel of urban blight -- mud, horses, lawlessness to a degree, but Ripper Street manages to tell the better stories. While the series clearly is a period piece, created by Richard Warlow (Mistresses), it moves at a much faster pace than some staid costume drama.

In that sense, it probably has more in common with Sherlock, the modern adaptation that has been a hit in England (and here) for two seasons. The work of Macfadyen, Flynn and Rothenberg is superb, and you always get a sense of camaraderie among them (though the characters of Jackson and Drake often are at odds).

Ripper Street is a well-acted, well-written and compelling mystery series. And even better, there’s no waiting around, wishing it would improve. It’s alluring from the start.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine