Friday, August 17, 2012

Copper: NYPD Blue, Circa 1864

Travel back to pre-Miranda New York.  The Civil War has turned for the Union, but social strife remains a constant fact of life.  For the accused, there is no right to remain silent.  “Start talking or start praying” Det. Kevin Corcoran tells one uncooperative witness, cocking his pistol.  There is a certain elegant simplicity to the direct approach.  In fact, interrogations are probably the only straight forward part of police work in Copper (promo here), BBC America’s first original (non-imported) dramatic series, which premieres this Sunday night.

Corcoran bravely served the Union Army, only to find his young daughter murdered and his wife missing on his return home.  In 1864, the primary responsibility for a cop like Corcoran is collecting the Captain’s payoffs.  While his personal investigation is his primary interest, the brooding officer tries to do some legitimate police work here and there, since he has the gun and badge.  During the course of the first two episodes, Corcoran becomes understandably emotionally invested in the case of a young girl murdered by a sexual predator.  Corcoran will risk his life and career to protect the victim’s twin sister from the uber-connected suspect.  Fortunately, he will have some help from Five Points’ finest prostitutes.

Much of Copper is indeed set in that neighborhood so squalid, it no longer exists.  The morally ambiguous Morehouse family, with whom Corcoran has some complicated history, expects to be the ones to profit from this anticipated urban renewal project.  Meanwhile, Manhattan’s African American community is moving north.  This includes Dr. Matthew Freeman, the only competent doctor in New York willing to act as Corcoran’s secret pathologist. As one might expect, the thorny racial relations of competing Irish immigrant and free African American communities take center stage in the third outing.

Granted 1864 was a tough year in our nation’s history, but Copper seems to take perverse glee in reveling in New York’s degradation.  Nor does it even attempt to disguise its overt class warfare.  At least in episodes one and two, the wealthy are not just venal robber barons.  They are also largely pedophiles.

Despite the heavy handed social commentary, Copper works well on the procedural level.  MI-5’s Tom Weston-Jones is refreshingly hardnosed as the relatively honest anti-hero.  It appears Copper will not be about solving mysteries per se, but figuring out how to dispense justice within a corrupt system.  That is actually a potentially rewarding twist on the police drama that worked so well for the cool but canceled Zen.

Weston-Jones and co-writer-creators Tom “Oz” Fontana and Will Rokos compellingly establish Copper’s lead protagonist in the first three installments, but the supporting characters still need a bit of fleshing out.  Of course, that is not uncommon at this stage.  They have ten episodes to work with, after all.  Still, Tanya Fischer’s Molly Stuart, the you-know-what with a heart of at least semi-precious metal, seems to warrant keeping an eye on.

There is some real potential in Copper.  It is an impressive period production and when justice is served, it is served satisfyingly cold.  Yet, it risks overdoing the Jacob Riis progressive tut-tutting in the early stages, already showing a tendency to fall back on clichéd stock villains.  Engaging but uneven, Copper is an easy choice while Masterpiece Mystery is rerunning Inspector Lewises, but it may have a hard time holding it audience when Wallander returns.  Whether it continues to develop and make good on what appears promising remains to be seen.  Regardless, Copper begins this Sunday (8/19) on BBC America.