This is a crime procedural through and through, with most episodes being self-contained and neatly tied up before 60 minutes is up.
I missed the boat on Sherlock, the BBC series that made people fall in love with the now-ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, and remember why they fell in love with Martin Freeman long ago. Cashing in on the success of that powerhouse, BBC America has launched a new period procedural, Ripper Street, and after watching the DVD of the entire first season, I have to say I’m rather impressed and quite hooked.
The title is a bit misleading, making it appear the focus is something it isn’t: namely, the search for Jack the Ripper. While it is based on the real-life events and characters surrounding that horrendous spree in 1888, the story picks up roughly five months after Jack has gone silent and the brutal murders have ceased. Whitechapel, in London’s East End, is still on edge with the threat of the Ripper re-appearing at any moment. It is up to Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) to keep order from his position at H Division, the police precinct charged with overseeing the most dangerous and violent neighborhood of London. Assisting Reid is his loyal sergeant, Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), a man older in years than Reid and more attuned to the pulse of the streets. His commitment to Reid is unquestioned until, in a later episode (“The Weight of One Man’s Heart”), Drake’s past comes back to haunt him.
Reid also employs the rather caustic and lascivious American surgeon Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) as his medical examiner/chemist/forensic investigator. He is, essentially, Dr. Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes rolled into one. Jackson has a room and a running tab at a brothel run by Miss Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) where he indulges in his every desire. From very early on, we know that Susan and Jackson have more than just a professional relationship, and it becomes apparent over the course of the season that their history together has entwined them with a group of men obsessed with revenge (“A Man of My Company”).
Ripper Street is a crime procedural through and through, with most episodes being self-contained and neatly tied up before 60 minutes is up. It’s the overarching stories and subplots, though, that make the show so engaging. Reid, for example, is suffering a tremendous amount of guilt because he and Chief Inspector Fred Abberline (Clive Russell) were unable to catch Jack the Ripper while he was still active. Reid also has some darker secrets revolving around his wife, Emily (Amanda Hale), and her perpetual state of mourning.
However, it’s the supporting characters to whom we become most attached, especially Drake, who is a bulldog on the outside and puppy on the inside. Flynn has the perfect rugged and worn-out physical appearance for Drake, but it’s the emotional nakedness—whether rage or loneliness—that makes him so irresistible to watch. Drake’s combative relationship with Jackson, too, is quite entertaining, the former never quite appreciating what the Yank doctor is able to offer.
As I said, each episode can be taken on its own, but creator and writer Richard Warlow is best when he’s seamlessly weaving several long-gestating storylines, such as Reid’s relationship with Deborah Goren (Lucy Cohu), the Jewish woman who runs an orphanage, or Drake’s infatuation with Rose (Charlene McKenna), one of Susan’s girls. As the season progresses, so do these sometimes toxic plots.
The DVD extras are quite lacking, unfortunately. Essentially, it is just a collection of promo materials BBC America used to hype the show before it premiered late last year. There are a few one-minute interviews with the cast and Warlow, but there are no truly meaty, behind-the-scenes features that talk about the fantastic set design and costumes, or the very visceral approach the show has taken. I would have loved to have seen a tour of the sets that are used and to hear about how the actors learned to use the very archaic “technology” that was available in the late 19th century.
Two short BBC documentaries have been recycled and thrown in to fill up space. The first examines what Whitechapel was really like at the time of the Ripper’s murderous rampage, along with the awful living conditions the residents tried to survive. The second is a very cartoonish investigation using modern forensics to try to uncover the identity of Jack the Ripper. (Spoiler alert: He is still unknown.)
Ripper Street is very well done, with superior acting performances from the whole cast. While the DVD is less than thrilling in terms of bonus features, I can only hope more will be made available when the second season is released. | Matthew Newlin