When I hear that Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson have a new cop show in the works, I pay attention. This is the team, after all, responsible for one of the greatest cop shows of all time, NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
When I hear that Fontana and Levinson’s cop show is the first original drama for a cable channel, I pay attention. This is the team, after all, that gave HBO its first scripted drama in “Oz,” the often-fascinating prison drama that in turn led to “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” etc.
And when I hear that Fontana and Levinson’s cop show is set in New York in 1864, I pay attention. The period is a familiar one from Westerns and Civil War stories, but in terms of what was happening back in the northeast – and also what urban policework was like in this long-ago period – it’s ground that’s only occasionally been trod.
So, yes, my anticipation was very high for Fontana, Levinson and Will Rokos’s “Copper,” which debuts on Sunday night at 10 on BBC America, a channel that until now was content to simply import content from the mothership in the U.K.
And, indeed, Fontana and Rokos’ script has a lot of fun playing with our expectations of contemporary cop dramas by showing how things would have worked in the mid-19th century. When our hero, Civil War veteran Kevin “Corky” Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) corners a crew of bank robbers, he shoots first and yells “Police!” after. The police department feels only vaguely organized – Corcoran and his partners Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Andrew O”Brien (Dylan Taylor) seem to do most of their planning in Corky’s living room, or at the brothel where Corky and Maguire’s girlfriends work – and corruption among the rank-and-file is an accepted fact of life.
Fontana has never had much interest in police science – “Homicide” was a show where cases got closed by detectives talking suspects into confessing – but he finds an interesting way to use forensics here. First, it’s 1864, so the science is all beyond primitive compared to what we know from “CSI,” and is barely trusted by most of the cops themselves. Second, the man doing the autopsies and crime scene analysis is Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African-American physician whose work for Corky has to be kept a secret because it would be instantly discredited by the white doctors on the department payroll.
It’s a promising framework for a series, and the first two episodes of “Copper” work in fits and starts. The scenes involving Freeman and his wife Sara (Tessa Thompson) moving to the rural area that will one day become Harlem because of Sara’s overpowering but understandable fear of white people, for instance, are terrific. And the casually violent nature of policework at the time is well captured.
But “Copper” doesn’t arrive fully-formed in the way that “Homicide” or “Oz” did. This is a big, ambitious project with a lot of layers and a lot of practical considerations to be figured out, and you can almost see Fontana, Levinson and Rokos figuring out what they can and can’t pull off over the course of the opening two-parter.
Because all of Manhattan – including the Five Points neighborhood(*) where Corky works – couldn’t remotely pass for 1864 anymore, the series is filmed primarily inside a large studio in Toronto. Sometimes, the show is able to maintain the illusion that we’ve traveled back in time to 1860s New York, while at others it very clearly looks like actors on a stage, or actors standing in front of a green screen. The difference in the aesthetic quality when the show actually goes out to a real physical location like Freeman’s new house is striking.
(*) It’s the same setting from Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” which also took place in this time period. (Scorsese had a bigger budget to work with, and had his set built in Rome.)
The series also wants to portray more than just the working-class life of the cops at the time by frequently making Corcoran cross paths with his wealthy former Civil War commanding officer, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), and with socialite Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith). Though all the actors (including Franka Potente as Eva, Corky’s sometime-girlfriend) seem, to varying degrees, to be working to adapt themselves to a different era, style of dress and manner of speaking, Schmid has the most obvious difficulty with it. What I imagine is meant to be a charismatic and morally elusive character instead comes across like he’s not entirely sure how to carry himself.
The series was originally developed at AMC five years ago, and Fontana and Rokos expanded their original pilot script into a two-part story to better allow them to introduce the characters and this world. Given how alien so much of the policework is, that was probably a good idea, but it also means expanding the first case – in which Corky and his partners have to rescue a child prostitute – to seem more prominent and lurid than may have been intended, like this is less a 19th century “Homicide” than a 19th century “Law & Order: SVU.”
“Copper” is very much a work in progress, but it’s a work in progress from a creative team whose track record all but demands investing the time to see what it becomes. Fontana isn’t infallible (even in the cop show realm, his short-lived UPN series “The Beat,” starring a young Mark Ruffalo, was more noble experiment than compelling drama), but the pieces are certainly here for him to do something special down the road.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org