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Copper: Back in the New York Groove

by Ethan Alter August 20, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Copper</i>: Back in the New York Groove

The most surprising thing about BBC America's heavily hyped, hugely ambitious first original scripted series, Copper -- which follows the exploits of a New York city detective who patrols the streets of Lower Manhattan circa 1864 -- isn't that 19th century police work was so different than it is today: it's that the cop show formula seems to remain the same, no matter the era. Brought to you by creative team responsible for the late, great police drama Homicide: Life on the Street (that would be Tom Fontana, who co-created the show, and Barry Levinson who is on board as the executive producer), Copper may take place in the past, but it mostly sticks to contemporary genre rules.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a formula-driven show, especially when that formula works like gangbusters when it's well-executed. Based on last night's premiere, Copper isn't that kind of series -- at least not yet -- but it's off to a solid start, with the production values and plotting making up for some of the deficiencies in the dialogue and characterizations. Still, the most striking thing about it is how closely it follows the present-day Laws of Cop Dramas instead of using the time period as more of an excuse to depart from the traditional playbook. Here are some of those laws and how Copper follows them to the letter.

Law #1: The show's protagonist must be a tragedy-plagued cop who likes to play by his own rules.
The central copper (or, in the parlance of the time, "coppah") of the title is Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish immigrant who went off to fight in the Civil War and returned to New York to find his daughter murdered and his wife vanished. That horrific homecoming, coupled with his hellish wartime experiences, weighs on his mind and instills in him a ferocious desire to see justice done, which is part of the reason why he joined the force. But justice is hard to come by in the infamous Five Points neighborhood where he lives and works, especially when 99.9 percent of the police department is corrupt. So Corcoran freely stretches, bends and sometimes even breaks the law to accomplish his goals, which frequently diverge from what his superiors want. In last night's pilot, for example, he took it upon himself to shield a young street urchin/street walker, whose sister was murdered in a brothel and the same wealthy man who committed that crime (and has an in with the police) would like to see her dead as well. A suitably intense actor who bears a striking resemblance to director Robert Rodriguez, Weston-Jones holds the screen well, but he's so far been given little to do beyond grimace and pout. At least other TV cops in his mold -- think Dennis Franz and Michael Chiklis -- can crack a smile every now and then.

Law #2: Behind every crime is a rich, powerful and wholly corrupt businessman.
Since police work is literally a blue collar profession on TV, the job of committing crimes is almost always left up to the white collar class. While they rarely get their hands dirty themselves, they do hire the lower-class low-lifes who will do it for them or set in motion the forces that lead to whatever the specific case of the week is. In the premiere, the specific Evil White Guy was Winfred Haverford, a white-haired scumbag who frequents underage prostitutes and doesn't mind using their heads for batting practice since the police will never arrest him. But the morally dubious tycoon to keep your eye on is Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) the scion of the powerful Morehouse family who served alongside Corcoran in the Union Army and helped get him his current gig. While he's friendly to his copper coppah pal's face, as the pilot hints at (and as subsequent episodes make clear), good ol' Rob has his own agenda that will inevitably cause headaches for everyone.

Law #3: The hookers must have hearts of gold.
With his wife MIA, Corcoran has taken up with Eve Heissen (Franka Potente, probably the biggest name in the cast) the proprietor of noted Five Points saloon/brothel, Eva's Paradise. (Her establishment would have received a top Zagat score... if Zagat had existed back then.) A serious businesswoman with a serious crush on this tortured emo-cop, Eva is only too happy to offer him her assistance when he needs it and instructs the other girls in her employ, including her right-hand gal Molly Stuart (Tanya Fischer), to do the same. It's still surprising that Potente never became a bigger star following her attention-grabbing roles in Run Lola Run and The Bourne Identity, but her presence is welcome here, providing the star magnetism that's missing from what's otherwise a respectable, but mostly forgettable ensemble.

Law #4: The cop must have a team of loyal sycophants who are always on hand to help him in the field.
For obvious reasons, Corcoran doesn't trust a lot of people in his line of work. But he does keep three people in his inner circle: burly Andrew O'Brien (Dylan Taylor), quick-tempered Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and, most importantly, sober Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a free African-American doctor who performs freelance forensic investigations for the detective. Of these three, Freeman is by far the most interesting character and, honestly, probably deserves to star in a spin-off show that more thoroughly covers the racial inequities of the time. For now at least, these three mainly exist to give Corcoran someone besides himself to talk to. Here's hoping they get to do more as the series movie forwards.

Law #5: The episodes must balance case-of-the-week material with longer story arcs.
One of the hallmarks of Homicide was the way it juggled multiple cases within episodes and allowed some storylines to run on for weeks and months. (Fontana adopted a similar approach with his terrific HBO prison series Oz, and the same style can be seen currently on TNT's Southland.) So far, Copper is more limited -- or, if you prefer, focused -- in its storytelling, as both the premiere and next week's installment revolve around the same crime and only introduce a few potentially long-term plots. While this approach obviously makes it easier for viewers to jump aboard after the show has begun, the setting and period cry out for a more sprawling approach that really immerses viewers in this vanished era. Obviously, Fontana and Levinson don't have the time or budget to achieve the kind of epic scope that was on display in Martin Scorsese's similarly-themed Gangs of New York (an obvious influence here), but they could definitely open up this world by not insisting that Corcoran always be at the center of the action, in the same way that Homicide offered a more complete cross-section of Baltimore by avoiding having one leading man (although Andre Braugher certainly became that show's de facto star). Make no mistake: as it is now, Copper is a good show. But there's the potential for it to be something great if it stops simply following these established laws and starts making up some of its own.

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