She's Got to Stop with the Smut
Ripper Street is the latest police procedural drama desperately seeking a new setting for the old formula. As its title suggests, this version takes place on the same Whitechapel streets where Jack the Ripper committed his “canonical five” murders. A coproduction of the BBC and BBC America (premiering on the latter 19 January), the new series takes place on these same streets in 1889, only six months after the last of the murders. This means the shadow of the Ripper most assuredly still hangs over Whitechapel, its citizens, its legal system, and its police officers. This old setting ironically helps the show breathe new life into the genre.
This time the case is overseen by Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), a veteran cop well aware of the scapegoating and paranoia affecting post-Ripper Whitechapel. Another one of those “one good cops” who have seen too much, Reid avoids coming off as a cliché, owing to Macfadyen’s nuanced performance of a man troubled by a tragic past, a loss he shares with his wife Emily (Amanda Hale), even as they find it difficult now to converse. He visits her at a church where, he notes, she’s been spending much of her time, a place he describes as full of “bells clanging, faithful falling to their knees.” Emily rejects his entreaties to return to their previous life: “We live in different times now,” she says, an observation that characterizes his career and the case before him as well.
This case begins rather predictably in the first episode, entitled “I Need Light”. when an undeniably Ripper-style murder is discovered in a Whitechapel alleyway. A young woman (presumed to be a “tart”) has been sliced up and arranged under a gruesome graffiti that reads, “Down On Whores”, in a scrawl much like Jack’s own wall writing. The obvious similarities are enough to pique the interest of Ripper expert Inspector Frederick Abberline (the historical detective assigned to the Ripper Murders, here played by Clive Russell). Abberline inserts himself into the case, secure in the belief that Jack is back.
Ripper Street is less quick to judge, allowing the killer might be Jack, a copycat or something else. This gritty, often disturbing mystery is instigated by the crime scene investigation and thorough autopsies performed by Captain Homer Jackson (a gun-slinging former US Army surgeon played by Adam Rothenberg) at a time when Forensic Science was in its infancy. His faith in science finds occasional resistance from Reid’s tough-as-nails partner Detective Sergeant Drake (Jerome Flynn), as likely to punch or stab a suspect as he is to apprehend him.
The team provides an engaging mix of personalities: Flynn’s stone-faced intensity here recalls his work as Bronn on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Rothenberg is excellent as the “token yank”, and MyAnna Buring is sharp as Long Susan, who is not just another brothel madame close enough to the streets to be both in danger and dangerous: she and Rothenberg provide some of the show’s most mesmerizing moments, as they debate, in their way, the morality and politics of prostitution of various sorts.
The effects of such moments are shaped by writer/creator Richard Warlow and episode director Tom Shankland’s attention to the period details: streets are sooty, gaslight creates flickering shadows, and stone floors make footsteps seem chilling. These details help make Ripper Street a compelling procedural, its long form narrative and deliberate pace different from the CSI and Law & Order clones. But the show also bears traces of contemporary influences: an underground boxing club sequence in the first episode resembles similar scenes in Sherlock Holmes (2009) so much that a coincidence is hard to imagine. Equally derivative, some overt efforts to shock viewers deliver graphic violence and some nudity, courtesy of the evolving technology of photography, as it’s inspiring an evolving “smut” industry. And yet these images offer commentary as well, as the detectives discover that photographs are not only portraits of moments and individuals, but also documents of crimes and bits of evidence in need of interpretation.
As these and other images are not only what they seem, they help also to develop Ripper Street‘s more distressing themes, its interest in the effects of guilt and shame, the consequences of poverty and privilege, the “dark secrets” maintained by seemingly ordinary people.