BBC America’s Copper comes saddled with a set of expectations to meet for both its network and its viewers. The BBC’s United States arm has gained some traction over the past few years, not just by airing new Doctor Who episodes, but also by cherry-picking some of the BBC’s most acclaimed dramas for its Dramaville block. This means that even though Copper is BBCA’s first original show, it’s going to be compared to shows like The Hour and Luther, which set a high bar. As for the audience, the BBCA is justifiably touting executive producer and show runner Tom Fontana’s name in its promotions for Copper. Viewers whose memories go back to the early ’90s will remember Fontana as the creator of HBO’s Oz, as well as co-creating the brilliant Homicide: Life on the Street with David Simon; they may also recall the work of Fontana’s co-executive producer here, Barry Levinson.
Copper works a little too hard to live up to these expectations. The premiere episode — airing 19 August — opens on New York City detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) stopping a bank robbery with his partners, Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Andrew O’Brien (Dylan Taylor). The twist is that Copper is set in 1864, which means that “stopping the robbery” involves Corcoran waiting until the thieves escape with the money, then shooting them dead in the street. Each of the three detectives grabs some cash for himself before their sergeant and captain arrive on the scene to take the rest of the stolen money back to the bank.
This is a heck of a scene, but it runs into a common cop show problem: the maverick detectives come on awfully strong, making Corcoran, our ostensible hero, look more like an asshole than a badass. He shoots the first thief before identifying himself as “Police!” and the killing of the entire crew of robbers seems excessive. Before the episode is halfway over, our view of Corcoran is changing, as his friends and associates praise his general bravery and his upstanding morals.
He does appear to be occasionally good, though his recent experience in the Civil War has left him hardened. When the body of a preteen girl is found, Corcoran puts his partners off taking her right to the funeral parlor and instead brings the corpse to his friend, Dr. Freeman (Ato Essandoh), to investigate the cause of death. He’s concerned that she resembles a street urchin he met back at the beginning of the episode, and cares what happened to her. When he discovers the street girl is still alive, he puts her up in the local brothel where he’s friendly with the madam (Franka Potente), until he can sort out the mystery.
Sussing out Corcoran’s relationships with such associates and his fellow police officers (his sergeant hates him, but the captain respects him) while he tracks down the girl’s killer is probably plenty for one episode. But Copper keeps piling on the story, by way of explaining the politics of old-timey New York. We find out that Freeman soldiered alongside Corcoran in the Civil War, and that he and his perpetually frightened wife are moving out of the Five Points district to farm country north of the newly created Central Park. Corcoran also has a friendly relationship with another ex-soldier, Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), the heir to one of the area’s richest families. Plus, Corcoran came home from the war to find his six-year-old daughter murdered and his wife missing.
This is a lot to sort out in one hour, but Corcoran keeps it all straight. Copper smooths out considerably in the second episode. Freed from all the table-setting legwork, the show picks up the disjointed story pieces from the first episode and sets about tying them together. It also shows Corcoran surviving a pretty nasty injury, then engaging in some near-superheroic action in a climax that seems unlikely at best.
If it strains our credulity at times, Copper also assumes our intelligence, specifically, for introducing us to an unfamiliar world and, rather than explaining every simple detail, expecting us to keep up with plot and context. Director Jeff Woolnough and DP Paul Sarossy’s beautifully composed images help us to understand the oppressive poverty of Five Points and the limits of daily life, say, the dim light provided by gas lamps and candles. Such haunting images help to make Copper more complex and compelling than the usual American police procedural.