Income disparity, bank bombings, racism, corruption and murder. Manhattan already had it all in 1864.
Copper, BBC America’s first original scripted series, makes a case for glancing back.
Set in Lower Manhattan’s wretched Five Points neighborhood, Copper wends through the violent, ratty alleys of Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York and populates them with the character antecedents of CSI.
Created by Tom Fontana ( Homicide: Life on the Streets) and Will Rokos ( Southland), with director Barry Levinson on board as executive producer, the well-pedigreed Copper has a lush, squalid beauty occasionally matched by its storytelling.
The copper is New York detective Kevin Corcoran; Tom Weston-Jones leads a fine cast with little name recognition.
An Irish immigrant, the brass-knuckled Corcoran recently returned from the Civil War to find his wife missing and his young daughter murdered. Haunted, he seeks clues to the family tragedy while investigating crimes in Five Points. He has plenty of work.
In the premiere, the murder of a child prostitute leads Corcoran to a high-society suspect.
The show’s best inspiration (two episodes were available for review) is the mysterious battlefield bond among Corcoran and two unlikely war buddies: Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), the dissolute scion of an aristocratic family, and Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a black doctor who is the unheralded forensics genius behind Corcoran’s crime-solving success.
The friendships (the roots of which won’t be spoiled here) allow Copper to traverse old Manhattan and its social strata, from the incipient upward mobility of the Lower Manhattan Irish to the parlors of robber barons on Upper Fifth Avenue.
Early on, Freeman moves from the Five Points slums to Carmansville, a rural African-American outpost where his wife Sara (Tessa Thompson) can recover from the trauma of seeing her brothers lynched during the Draft Riots.
Carmansville will later become Manhattan’s Washington Heights, and no small amount of the series’ appeal is its time- tripping tourism. The sets — evocatively recreated tenements, townhouses and brothels, constructed in a Toronto studio that often seems lit by candlelight — are on par with the period dramas of HBO and Showtime.
But looks won’t hold our interest forever, perhaps not even for a 10-episode season, without more narrative twists like the one in the second episode. A child, a knife, and a killer jolt history to life.