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Copper: Season One (Blu-ray)

(US DVD: 30 Oct 2012)

The first series created specifically for BBC America, Copper, is a police drama set in New York City at the time of the Civil War.  The series is part crime drama and part period piece, bringing together a varied group of individuals struggling with the limitations of the time. It takes historical accuracy very seriously and uses well known events and people as a backdrop that is both well-executed and compelling.


Copper centers on Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), a working class Irish police detective and veteran of the Civil War. Upon his return from the war after four years away, he comes home to discover that his wife is missing and his young daughter is dead. The mystery surrounding their circumstances provides much of Kevin’s motivation for the season, in addition to his regular police work.


While Kevin was away fighting for the Union Army, he befriended fellow soldiers wealthy New Yorker, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), and free African-American doctor Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh).  The class differences between the three, along with their history together in the war makes for an unlikely friendship and alliance, although one that serves to work in their respective favors throughout the season. In addition to Robert and Matthew, Kevin’s fellow detectives Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Andrew O’Brien (Dylan Taylor) are his trusted allies on cases, as well as in helping to solve the mystery surrounding his wife and daughter.


As much of the series focuses on the divide between the poor Five Points area and the more well-to-do Fifth Avenue, issues of race and class play a large role in the interactions between the main characters. Perhaps the greatest personification of these differences is in the series’ depictions of women. Fifth Avenue is home to Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith), the English wife of the wealthy and powerful Winifred Haverford, while in Five Points Eva (Franka Potente) is the madam of her own brothel and Sara (Tessa Thompson) is Matthew’s perpetually frightened homemaker wife. While Elizabeth wields her influence in political and social issues that interest her – albeit with the aid of powerful friends such as Robert – Eva and Sara struggle further against race and class restrictions, on top of the gender limitations of the time. 


In addition to Eva and Sara’s struggles, Annie (Kiara Glasco), a young drug-addicted orphan prostitute, is the extreme depiction of a life without resources, often at the mercy of those more powerful. The series does not shy away from showing sexualized young girls and the seedier side of those who exploit them. It’s a historically accurate approach, but one that can be difficult to watch. While Annie’s life is tragic to be sure, she finds help in Kevin’s protective streak, especially as she reminds him of his own daughter, and she complicates matters for the Haverfords.


Copper makes good use of the time period in solving cases, particularly when it comes to early methods of crime scene investigation. Matthew is not only a physician, he’s also a medical examiner and scientist, of sorts. His techniques are oftentimes crude, but still effective when providing key information for Kevin’s cases, most frequently in secret. For example, Matthew’s use of the Marsh test to detect arsenic or his method of revealing the writing on a piece of burnt paper by bringing out the iron in the ink are ingenious ways to discover cause of death, early though the techniques may be.


The series does a nice job of telling a complex story amidst a historical background. One of the more pressing historical events is that of the second Lincoln presidential election. As politics play an important role in the series, it is the Fifth Avenue characters that participate most fully in the process. Five Points is more focused on more personal issues, such as the more complicated dynamics between Kevin and Francis, or Kevin and Eva, or Matthew and Robert. None of the relationships in Copper are necessarily straightforward, and the difficulties in coexisting among racial and class lines make them even more problematic. Kevin exists as a link between them all, serving as a kind of ambassador for all sides.


Copper owes a great debt to the superior Deadwood, as its influence is certainly felt throughout the season. While Copper takes a page from the series’ approximate time period and its focus on the differences of race, class, and gender, it doesn’t have the same larger than life characters that were instrumental to Deadwood’s brilliance. Copper is a solid series with great potential and clearly a labor of love for creators Tom Fontana and Will Rokos. Its attention to detail is especially well done. While Kevin Corcoran is the obvious center of the series, and Weston-Jones does a wonderful job in the role, it’s the supporting cast that really lends the series its authenticity and depth. 


The DVD release includes quite a few bonus features, including behind the scenes featurettes, most notably one entitled Behind the Badge: City of Immigrants that contains a great deal of incisive and thoughtful information; as well as deleted scenes and photo galleries.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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Abraham Lincoln's assassination is just months away and there's increasing corruption in New York's Tammany Hall, embodied here by General Brendan Donovan (Donal Logue), new to the series this season.
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Detective Kevin Corcoran does appear to be occasionally good, though his recent experience in the Civil War has left him hardened.
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