Copper Season One (BBC America)

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copper 75Although the contemporary public world officially belonged to men, the women give at least as good as they get, and are just as complex as the men.

 

 

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I’ve become a big fan of arc television—shows like Mad Men, in which a number of interlocking storylines work themselves out over the course of a season. Honestly, I’ve seen better acting, cinematography, and especially writing in the best of the arc shows than in most new movies, and the scripts also beat out most of what is being written these days for live theater. I also like to watch arc shows in binges, so, of course I jumped at the chance to review the DVD set of the first season of Copper, BBC America’s first original drama series, particularly since it’s set in my adopted hometown of New York City.

The central character in Copper is Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), a detective in the New York City Police Department. The story begins in 1864, when the NYPD is only 20 years old and the Civil War is still raging (it pops up regularly in Copper episodes). Much of the action takes place in Five Points, a densely populated area of lower Manhattan which at the time represented some of the best and the worst of the city. It was a great melting pot of people who came to America to make a better life for themselves, but it was also notorious for poverty, crime, disease, vice, and the various other ills still associated with city slums. You can imagine that a goody-two-shoes cop wouldn’t get much done in such an environment, nor would he survive for long, and the series wastes no time establishing Corcoran’s moral ambiguity and his willingness to stray from the rulebook in order to get things done.

Although Corcoran is the title character, the series depends, as arc TV generally does, on a sturdy ensemble of complex characters. Some are connected to Corcoran by their service in the Civil War, including Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a free Black who learned medicine during the war; Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), the son of a wealthy industrialist who was Corcoran’s major during the war; and Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), a cop and fellow veteran. Some are associated with the world’s oldest profession, a thriving trade in Five Points at the time, including the madams Eva Heissen (Franka Potente) and Contessa Popadou (Inga Cadranel); Eva’s employee Molly Stuart (Tanya Fischer); and a young girl whom Corcoran rescues from prostitution, Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco). The upper class is also well represented, with Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith), wife of a wealthy businessman, chief among them.

One arc that runs throughout the season is Corcoran’s attempt to find out what happened to his wife and child, who disappeared while he was off serving in the war. Another involves the rehabilitation of Annie, who appears to be well on her way to a career as the city’s first female mayor, with perhaps a sideline in crime fighting—she’s a smart girl, in other words, and not irreparably damaged by her traumatic early life. In fact, although the series makes it clear that the contemporary public world officially belonged to men, the women characters in general give at least as good as they get, and are just as complex as the men. And yes, the women have names and talk to each other about something other than men, so Copper passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.

This is a good series to watch on DVD, because it’s a little slow getting started; in fact, I probably would have given up on it had I been watching one episode at a time. But it’s worth sticking it out for a few episodes, because you gradually find yourself drawn into the world of the characters and become emotionally involved in the different story arcs, and then you just have to see what happens next (and it’s great to be able to do that without waiting a week). The period recreation is great, and the script works in a lot of historical references, which is one of the big appeals for a series like this.

The DVD set comes with lots of extras, including commentaries on several episodes, a making-of documentary, and featurettes on the major characters and some historical topics touched on in the series. All in all, Copper is a good genre series, and is particularly fascinating if you’re interested in the history of New York City, or of American history in general. | Sarah Boslaugh

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