These days, every channel wants its own original drama, even if that flies in the face of their perceived intentions in the marketplace. I mean, why is MTV doing anything other than play music videos non-stop? Perhaps inspired by the success of cable minnow Starz with Spartacus and Boss, British TV importer BBC America has created its own drama series—one that, wisely, mixes the BBC's reputation for esteemed period drama, with the American crime procedural obsession. The result is the ten-part Copper; a cop show set in 1864 New York City, which was vividly portrayed in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Unfortunately, BBC America doesn't have a movie-sized budget, or even a HBO-sized one, so Copper had to do one thing to make this work: give us memorable characters and a gripping story, in order to pull us through inevitable deficiencies with the production's scale and intricacies. It failed.
Irish immigrant Kevin "Corky" Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) is the ostensible hero of the piece; a man who comes weighted with juicy back-story. Corky's wife is missing, it may have something to do with a mysterious ship, and he's still mourning the death of his six-year-old daughter. He's also a Civil War hero and erstwhile prize-winning boxer, who's less corrupt than the people he works for (but still corrupt) and progressive enough to enlist the talents of a black surgeon called Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) who's at the vanguard of 19th-century forensics (sketching injuries, smearing clay onto mannequins and clubbing them with potential murder weapons). It all sounds rather exciting and refreshing on the page, but in reality Weston-Jones was a monumental bore, and a few fun insights into old-school forensic work don't make a good TV show.
The storyline felt intentionally controversial (the death of a very young girl who, like most of the women on the show, was a prostitute), but even that was restrained after it became clear the girl didn't lose her virginity before she was killed. The manner in which Corky took it upon himself to find the girl's killer, as seemingly the only person disgusted by the crime, just felt rather clichéd, and nothing about the story or characters really leaped off the screen. The somewhat similarly toned Hell on Wheels at least had a handful of intriguing performances and charismatic lead, together with impressive location shooting, but Copper is left wanting in those respects. It doesn't help that it's just too expensive to replicate New York City's infamous "Five Points" district to any great magnitude on television, meaning Copper had to make do with a few digitally-augmented shots of NYC and a half-decent greenscreen with Corky travelling across town by stagecoach. The rest of the show was noticeably restricted to streets and interiors built on a sound stage.
None of that would have mattered if I cared about the characters and wanted to see them find the young girl's killer, but I didn't. Creators Will Rokos and Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz) have come up with a fantastic concept for a TV series, doing for cop shows what the BBC's Garrow's Law did for legal drama, but they should have spent more time making sure the characters were strong enough to demand your interest... because, truthfully, Copper's a promising idea with an unremarkable pilot full of exposition, yet empty of emotion.
I can imagine Copper getting better, or more interesting, because this era's so fascinating, but I won't be watching more unless someone trustworthy tells me it's turned into a definite triumph.
(Awesome theme tune, though.)
written by Will Rokos & Tom Fontana / directed by Jeff Woolnoug / 19 August 2012 / BBC America