Sunday, September 16, 2012

Playing It Real: Showcase and BBC America's Copper

Tom Weston-Jones in Copper

Whenever a television show set in a time period that is not present day comes on the air I'm always curious to see if the characters will be true to the era; or will they be so infected with 21st century sensibilities that, no matter how many period details they get right, the characters just don't ring true. That was in my mind when the first episode of the new series Copper on Showcase (in Canada) and BBC America (in the U.S.) hit the airwaves four weeks ago. So I could not have been more pleased when the pilot episode started with our ostensible hero, Irish-American Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) and his crew, stopping a bank robbery. This is what they did: They waited for the bank robbers to emerge from the bank with their ill-gotten gain (they had received a tip beforehand) and then they followed them. When the robbers entered a secluded alleyway, Corky (as he's called) and his men bushwhacked them. They basically killed the men in cold blood and, before the chief detective can arrive, they pocketed half the money.

To some, this may seem a terrible way to introduce us to our main characters. Some will think, 'why would I want to watch a show with murderous thugs?' But me, I smile. In 1864 New York City, corruption was rampant. Everybody, I mean everybody got their piece, and if some bad men paid the ultimate price, well so be it. Corky may sometimes use frontier justice (he did witness these men walk out with the loot so there's no doubt of their guilt), but he also has a strong moral code that, with a little bending of time-specific credibility, also fits the rules of an “honest” cop in NYC during the final months of the Civil War. The main woman in his life, Eva Heissen (Franka Potente – The Bourne Identity), is a mid-level madame in a neighbourhood whorehouse. And yet, he thinks nothing of sleeping with Molly (Tanya Fischer), another of the prostitutes who is supposedly the main woman of Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), one of his underlings. All this is authentic to the time in America before women had the right to vote and were essentially second-class citizens to be used as men saw fit.

Street Set in Copper
This show could not exist if it were not for David Milch's Deadwood. Deadwood's profane and evil second lead, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), was a wonderfully entertaining psychopathic character to have had such an important role in a TV show, and we are dealing with similarly dark material in Copper. And yet, even Deadwood didn't dare make its hero, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), as openly corrupt as Corky is.

In Corky's world – the poverty-stricken and violent area of NYC called Five Points – life is cheap, and yet certain things will not be tolerated by him or his crew. One is the exploitation of young girls by unscrupulous madames and the perverted johns who prefer their sexual partners very young. Back story details reveal to us that, while he was off fighting in the Civil War, Corky's daughter died under mysterious circumstances and his wife has disappeared. His first case in the pilot is to investigate the murder of a young girl who was about the same age as his own daughter when she died. He quickly determines that the murdered girl has a twin sister, Annie Reilly (Kiera Glasco), a sister who is working as a prostitute for a madame whose clientele are the moneyed men of NYC.

The resolution in episode two of who killed Annie's sister is intense and blunt television. What is made apparent in the first three episodes is the overarching stories that will occupy the show's first season: Corky trying to solve the mystery around his missing wife and dead daughter; Annie's life away from the world of child prostitution; Corky's relationship with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a black man who is Corky's friend after Freeman saved Corky's life during the war; a land-grab scheme that is underway by the moneyed men to buy all the land of Five Points for some as yet undisclosed purpose (I think something Chinatown-like might be underway).

Tom Fontana
Created by Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz) and Will Rokos (writer on TV's Southland and film's Monster's Ball), Copper so far shows an incredible amount of promise. The world is beautifully recreated on a large studio set in Toronto plus limited location work at Toronto's appropriate 19th century buildings such as City Hall; the actors are mostly well cast (they all look like they could exist in mid-nineteenth century NYC); and the stories that will be told in this first season are brave (child prostitution, paedophilia, back-street abortionists, racism, etc.). All is not perfection, though. In an effort to perhaps cover over the relatively low budget that they are working with to create this world, they rely waaaaaayy too much on low-key lighting and shadow. In the first episode, it was nearly impossible to see anything during the night sequences. It has improved somewhat in the next two episodes, but it is clearly a visual choice that I think both creative decisions and budgetary considerations have forced upon them. It's a pity, because it keeps throwing you out of the show as you struggle to see just what the heck is going on. Another issue that will obviously resolve itself as more episodes go by is that Tom Weston-Jones and Kevin Ryan look too much alike. In the first episode (and this was one of the biggest issues with the low light), I kept wondering who I was watching, Corky or his underling Francis Maguire. I'm also not quite convinced that Corky would have such a close relationship with Freeman. It is incredibly enlightened in that period for an Irish-American to be that friendly with a black man even if the creators cover it over by saying Freeman saved Corky's life in the Civil War. It's a stretch that reeks of 2012, but I'm willing to let it go because Freeman and his wife are interesting characters, and his relationship with Corky is intriguing.

Copper has gotten the 2012-2013 TV season (at least in the cable universe) off to a very promising start, and they also have, as with last summer's Continuum, kept the show to 10 episodes. I'm convinced that most TV shows should never be more than 12 per year. Even great shows that were given 22 episode seasons often had 3 or 4 that were useless filler. Leave 'em wanting more is always a good idea, and so far Copper has finished each week with me wanting just that.

The show is currently on Showcase in Canada on Sunday at 9pm. If you missed the first episodes, they are all available for viewing on Showcase's website.

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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