2012-29 REV Copper H

Weston-Jones is a detective in 1864 New York's notorious Five Points district.

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 New York in 1864, it's a tale of emerging identities. New York isn't quite there; the U.S. itself, torn by the Civil War, isn't quite there.

From Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, there's impressive pedigree here (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.

Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) is an Irish-American detective -- a "copper" -- who returns from battle in the Civil War only to find 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 -- people are poor and homeless, drunk and dangerous. 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 madame of Eva's Paradise, and he's aided in his detective duties by cops Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Andrew O'Brien (Dylan Taylor). However, all three are worried about their less-than-pure superiors who like the graft and do whatever favors the New York powers need.

But Corcoran has a link to that upper-crust world as well. Aristocrat Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) served with Corcoran in the war and 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.

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 at 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. What Levinson and Fontana are trying to tell here may add up to a fascinating novel. 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 that AMC's Hell on Wheels does, which is that there's an excellent show there somewhere, just not on the screen. In the competitive world of scripted drama, the series is going to need to kick in quick.

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