REVIEW:Copper (BBC America – Sunday, 10:00 p.m.)

From Academy Award® winner Barry Levinson and Emmy® Award winner Tom Fontana, “Copper” is a gripping crime drama series, set in 1864 New York City, filled with intrigue, corruption, mystery and murder. Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones, “MI-5″), an Irish-American former boxer turned cop, returns from the Civil War to find his wife missing and his daughter dead. Corcoran seeks justice for the powerless in the notorious immigrant neighborhood of Five Points. Bonded by battle to two Civil War compatriots – the wayward son of a wealthy industrialist and an African-American physician who secretly assists the forensic investigations – Corcoran is thrust into the contrasting worlds of elegant and corrupt Fifth Avenue, and the emerging African-American community in Northern Manhattan. The three men share a secret from the battlefield that inextricably links their lives forever.

70 out of 100

The last time we saw any attempt to recreate lower Manhattan mid-to-post-Civil War was in 2002 when Martin Scorcese, Leonardo Di Caprio and Daniel Day Lewis brought us the incredibly overrated Gangs of New York in which Scorcese seemed far more interested in creating an opera than he did in depicting the actual Five Points neighborhood and the actual history as presented in the original 1928 non-fiction book, The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, which the film is supposedly based on.  We love the opening line in the Wikipedia entry:

Gangs of New York is a 2002 historical film set in the mid-19th century in the Five Points district of New York City, purportedly depicting “the birth of Manhattan and the way the different waves of immigrants have shaped New York City’s evolution.”

Notice the keyword, “purportedly” because the film doesn’t even come remotely close to depicting “the birth of Manhattan and the way the different waves of immigrants have shaped New York City’s evolution.” Scorcese was far more concerned with the meaningless details of the architecture and culture than he was concerned with the actual the history of Five Points.  Copper, although not perfect by any means, seems to be at least attempting to do what Gangs of New York failed to do in that regard.

First, other than the similarity of the setting, Copper bears no resemblance whatsoever to Gangs of New York.  The best comparison we can make is really to HBO’s critically-acclaimed Deadwood, albeit, the light version, without all of the realism and  cleaned up for basic cable.  That being said, we were still pretty surprised at how dark the show really is considering it is basic cable, but then again, even though it’s not BBC, it is BBC America so we should expect it to be a little sharper than your typical U.S. fare.

During the pilot, in the first 10 minutes we see a nine year-old prostitute offer to “pleasure” our main character, Kevin Corcoran, a brutally violent gunfight where one man gets his entire eye socket completely blown out and his brains spray in a mist out of the back of his skull, and shortly after that, the dead body of our young prostitute’s twin sister is found, bludgeoened to death and we find out (graphically, I might add) that she was raped post-mortem.  It also didn’t help that Corcoran was literally running around with the child’s corpse bouncing on his shoulder wrapped in a blanket for a good five minutes.  Like we said… a little darker than expected.

Like Deadwood, Five Points is a lawless frontier town replete with many different and unseemly characters and with varying shades of gray.  We appreciate this portrayal because for some reason, people assume that due to its size and history that New York has always been the metropolis it is today.  Quite the contrary.  New York’s growth coincided with the westward expansion of the U.S. and the incredible influx of primarily European immigrants from the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s.  Between 1840 and 1900 the population of New York City increased by more than factor of 10 from 300,000 to 3.4 million.  This backdrop is providing an incredibly rich history that Barry Levinson seems eager to explore whereas Scorcese really didn’t seem that interested.

Now, as far as the depth of the characters is concerned, well, that leaves a little to be desired at this point.  Corcoran, though certainly a man of his times (he sees no problem in stealing the stolen money from the bank robbers that he and his fellow detectives just killed… kind of the Vic Mackey of his day but it’s acceptable and to be expected in 1864, apparently) does kind of come off as comic bookish in his dedication to “justice above all else.”  What bothers us about that is that it’s just very safe because that particular character has been done repeatedly in literature and pop-culture going back to the Greek tragedies.  The writers do attempt to tarnish this image by depicting him as a man who will use threats, intimidation, violence and outright torture to get the answers he wants and to dish out justice as he sees fit.  Again, he’s the Vic Mackey of his time but the problem with this is that in 1864, Vic Mackey would have fit right in so the “tarnished” effect they’re going for with Corcoran is completely lost.  All that aside, as far as leads go, Copper could certainly do a lot worse.  It’s very easy to see how audiences could become very attached to “Corky” as Dr. Freeman refers to him.

Speaking of which, the other main character is Dr. Matthew Freeman, played very well by Ato Essandoh who we honestly never heard of before Copper but he has had a long and distinguished career as a character actor in both film and television and you know how much we appreciate character actors.  Essandoh’s portrayal is certainly not the problem, it’s the character that’s a little screwy.  First, and this a minor nit-pick but notable, his name is all wrong for the character.  Freeman was a name that was commonly taken by freed slaves, post-emancipation.  The good Doctor is around 40 years-old which would make his birth year c. 1924 and the name “Freeman” implies that he was a slave that was freed.  Well, if this is the case, it’s pretty safe to say that he didn’t go to medical school or have any formal education whatsoever.  So, unless they explain this away magically, the name is completely wrong but like we said that’s a bit of a minor problem because he did imply that he worked in Paris and his bio on the show’s webpage states that he was a valet during the Civil War to Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) so we know he was definitely from the north, free and well-educated.

The real problem with the character is his skill as a coroner.  First, the bio and the show itself indicate nothing about him being a coroner, only a physician.  Being a coroner, even in 1864, was a very specialized field and what makes it more ridiculous is the level of sophistication he employs in the field of forensic science.  It’s not that we doubt the Doctor’s intelligence, but the science that he is using to determine cause of death and specific details about a perpetrator of said crime simply didn’t exist in 1864 at that level.  We don’t mind suspending disbelief, but this isn’t a SciFi show and it seems apparent that someone thought they could get away with this gimmick that serves to only appeal to the simplistic audiences that have been lapping up the CSI franchise for over a decade by simply having Freeman use contemporary scientific methods however only by using the technology available at the time.  It’s like how they explained away all of that stupid steampunk technology in Wild, Wild West but in reverse.  Sorry, but we’re not that stupid and throwing this aspect of the doctor’s character into the mix seems like a decision that a network executive made, not television writer.  This is just completely unbelievable and we have a feeling that they aren’t going to tone that down because it’s going to serve to be a good weekly gimmick for the show.

Our biggest issue with Copper, though, is that the entire show feels like it’s done on a studio backlot and on soundstages.  This is the one area where Gangs of New York surpasses it by leaps and bounds (and of course, Daniel Day Lewis was magnificent as Bill The Butcher).  It doesn’t feel like New York City or any other mid-19th century urban environment and the CGI backdrops are awful.

The pilot for us was a little slow for about the first thirty minutes but then it quickly picks up and becomes a very compelling story, with just the right amount of plot twists and political intrigue to keep viewers like us satisfied.  Copper appears to us to be a series that will have an overriding serial arc (that’s not particularly complicated so you can miss an episode or come to the series late without worry) with a murder-of-the-week theme, so it has a little something for everyone.

Bottom line, Copper is a very good series at this point but not a great series.  The positives of the characters and the storyline far outweigh any negatives.  We definitely recommend this, but brace yourself and try to control the eye-rolling which is inevitable.

Chance of Renewal:  100%

Again, like Perception on TNT this is a no-brainer.  Copper was the highest rated premiere in BBC America history and it probably made back all of its sunk capital costs the first night.  This is going to be a very popular show on a network that’s doing nothing but growing thanks to the saturation of BBC programming available on Netflix and PBS. Again, it’s another show that’s filmed in Canada (Toronto) so it makes it that much easier to call.  Figure that  renewal will be announced no later than the fifth episode.

6 comments on “REVIEW:Copper (BBC America – Sunday, 10:00 p.m.)

  1. Great write up, bro. I yawned only once. I’m gonna watch this bad boy and I’ll give you the skinny once I see it. Thanks.

  2. Ha, Vic! Where ya been, buddy?! I sent ya an email last month, never heard back! Get in touch, bro.

    BTW, that post was from very sarcastic and ball-busting new friend Michael who is going to start writing for The ‘Tastic. 🙂

    I need you too, pal!

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