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Copper: TV Review

Copper TV Still BBC - H 2012
BBC AMERICA/CINEFLIX

The Bottom Line

A sluggish start to a big story.

Airdate

10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19 (BBC America)

Lowlife, Civil War-era Manhattan takes center stage on BBC America’s ambitious drama.

BBC America’s first scripted series, Copper, is a lot like the city and country it depicts: not quite there yet. Set in 1864 New York, it’s a tale of emerging identities. New York isn’t quite there; it doesn’t even have a morgue yet. The U.S. itself, torn by the Civil War, isn’t quite there; the abolition of slavery hasn’t exactly made the races equal, nor has there been much improvement in the immigrant experience.

From Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, the series has an impressive pedigree (Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz), plus ambition, and BBC America clearly hopes to make a splash in the scripted world. On paper, there’s much to like about the premise. In practice, it’s a sluggish start to a big story -- and in today’s scripted environment, that usually doesn’t end well.

Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) is an Irish-American detective -- a “copper” -- who returns from the Civil War to find that his daughter has been murdered and his wife has disappeared. He’s seeking justice and the truth in their cases as he also tries to keep the wildly untamed Five Points area of New York in line. It’s a dark, dank part of the city, with mud and rot everywhere. People are poor and homeless, drunk and dangerous, and it appears that the Wild West has moved east. Whorehouses and bars do brisk business, most disputes are settled with violence, and Corcoran is in the employ of police who appear to be as crooked as the crooks.

That’s not to say that Corcoran is the hero. Like the rest of the coppers, he’s a “shoot first and figure it out after they’re dead” type of guy. He is sort of loyal to Eva (Franka Potente), the madam of Eva’s Paradise, and apparently his new love, though it’s hard to say that loyalty is really his game at this point. He’s aided in his detective duties by Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Andrew O’Brien (Dylan Taylor), two Irish cops who have his back. However, all three are worried about their less-than-pure superiors, Padraic Byrnes (David Keeley) and Ciaran Joseph Sullivan (Ron White), who like the graft and do whatever favors the New York powers require.

But Corcoran has a link to that upper-crust world as well. One of the men who served with him in the war was aristocrat Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), who had his leg amputated (saving his life) by his African-American valet, Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), who now secretly works with Corcoran as a doctor to find out how murders occurred. The three men apparently consider one another equals, much to the dismay of Morehouse’s powerful father, who has been buying up much of New York.

And so viewers are being presented with a fairly vast canvas: the emergence of a city and all of its social structures in particular and America in general. It’s a big bite to take, particularly when the first two episodes focus more acutely on a murder mystery involving a young girl. It would be a mistake for the series to concentrate on procedural elements to the detriment of the big picture, so here’s hoping that changes quickly.

Based on the ambition alone, it’s probably worth sticking with Copper to see where it goes, though it’s a little slow out of the box. The story Levinson and Fontana are trying to tell here might add up to a fascinating novel, particularly if BBC America keeps footing the bill -- and they’d better: This is a series absolutely geared for the long haul, not the short reveal. Unfortunately, the first couple of chapters seem a bit off. The acting is stiff, as if everyone is still trying to make sense of the times and the mannerisms. The writing tends to be a bit obvious and long on exposition (even given the immense story being undertaken). In some ways, Copper has the same problems AMC’s Hell on Wheels does, which is that there’s an excellent show there somewhere, just not on the screen. If the actors and writers can hit their stride, whatever grand visions Levinson and Fontana have for Copper could be realized. But in the competitive world of scripted drama, the series is going to need to kick in quick.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com