Copper episode 1 review: Surviving Death

Kylie takes a look at the season premiere of Copper, BBC America's new period cop drama, and its first original series. Here's her review...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Surviving Death

In a market oversaturated with police procedurals, apprehending lawless baddies is a cinch compared to the capture of the coveted public eye. Copper never really divorces itself from the modern cop drama, but this familiarity is a welcome relief in a show that unapologetically exposes the grim and sometimes horrific realities of life in New York City in 1864.

Copper is the first original series to air on BBC America, the station that brings U.S. viewers Doctor Who, Top Gear, some comedy that mostly goes over our heads….and that’s about it, really. The network recently rose from relative obscurity buoyed by an increased North American interest in British drama and sci-fi, led by the explosion of the Doctor Who fandom.  

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It seems strange that such an anglophilic station would choose as its first original programme a show situated squarely in U.S. history, but Copper channels the spirit of its British kindred with its love of history, real-life feel, and some talented British actors. Though it’s clearly part of a BBC push to appeal to an American audience, it feels at home on a network populated by British programmes, and it adds a welcome bit of variety to the station’s repertoire.

“Things are different for people like them than they are for people like us.”  This notion, offered by a wrongfully convicted man headed happily for the noose, strings the many issues introduced in the high-reaching series premiere of Copper together. 

There’s leading man Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish immigrant who returns from the Civil War to find that his wife is missing and his daughter dead, and no one in any position to do anything about it seems to care. There’s Dr. Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a freed slave whose forensic genius (was there really such a thing in 1864?) has little chance to improve the NYC justice system in a world ruled by rich white men, and his wife Sara (Tessa Thompson) who distrusts whites after her brothers were lynched by an Irish mob. 

A sweeping opening scene of sickness and poverty in the city’s Five Points slum is topped off by an offer from a girl no more than twelve years old to “pleasure” Corcoran as payment for an egg, and that is topped off by the murder and post-mortem rape of a child. The destitute Five Points is juxtaposed with the rich district of the city, where Corcoran attempts to create justice in a system that consistently proves itself to be cruelly, heartbreakingly unfair. 

That heartbreak is what keeps the show from falling into the decidedly un-entertaining clutches of hopeless bleak despair. Copper never quite loses its soul – or its conviction that a vigilante Irish detective with a set of badass brass knuckles can knock some sense into the world, even if he has to break a few rules along the way.

It’s a tall order for one series, let alone an hour-long premiere episode, but Copper balances its many social, political, and moral issues with a whirlwind grace that captures the chaos of the time but is never crushed by the weight of it. It’s a delicate balance; the show’s sensitive material compelled me to come up for air once in a while, and I found myself pulling out of the story world as a sort of safety net. But this is the unavoidable nature of sensitive material, and I was always drawn back in, intrigued by the show’s gritty honesty despite the challenges it posed. The episode ends abruptly, but with a promise to follow up on all those tasty morsels it offered in the season’s remaining nine episodes. 

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Possibly the show’s most impressive feat, other than juggling more big issues than an October presidential debate, is how it manages to make everything from upscale New York to Five Points slum to a bunch of half-washed long-haired men look great onscreen. The sets, costuming, and props all show a loving attention to detail (and often a loving coat of dirt). The fight scenes, whether with guns, fists, or brass knuckles, play out like high-adrenaline bar brawls, and that is exactly as they should be. The sight of Corcoran standing in the doorway of a lavish sitting room inhabited by a rich murderer about to go free is beautiful and telling in its contrast.

Co-creator Tom Fontana and director Barry Levinson, two of the brains behind previous well-respected crime dramas Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street, are the best-known names behind Copper. Less recognizable is the series’ cast, led by British actor Tom Weston-Jones, who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page yet (proof one resides in the dire pits of obscurity). I give it two weeks until he gets one. Weston-Jones plays the shoot-then-talk, personal-brand-of-justice Corcoran with a quiet resolve that makes him sympathetic even in his most morally ambiguous moments. Plus he is very, very pretty. 

There are several pretty people in Copper, in fact, but few of them get enough screen time to give more than an initial impression. Former Civil War major and amputee Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) shows promise as a smart and sympathetic side to the 1800s version of the 1%, and Essandoh and Thompson’s freed slave couple managed to tug at my emotions in their brief appearances while mostly avoiding cliché.      

Though Copper is dark and somewhat humourless, it’s gritty, sexy, and eye-catching, and probably has a few lessons for history students in it, too.  It certainly isn’t shy about tackling the more difficult study of human selfishness, corruption, and the murky path to setting these wrongs right. Copper is likely to be a bit of an investment, but it’s one I’m eager to make. 

“You want a fair fight?  You’re talking to the wrong fella,” quips Corcoran, and the show is poised to deliver plenty of unfair yet satisfying fights, both of the internal and the external varieties. Here’s hoping for a season packed with the sort of justice we can love to question.

Copper airs in the U.S. on BBC America, Sundays at 10 P.M. Eastern.

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