'Copper' Review: BBC America's First Original Series Is Promising, But Flat-Footed

Set in 1864, Copper stars Tom Weston-Jones (MI:5) as Irish-American Detective Kevin Corcoran. He’s a former boxer. He’s just returned home from the Civil War to find that his daughter has been murdered, and his wife is missing. How do I know this? Because it’s detailed in at least three extended exposition scenes during the first two episodes of Copper, which should probably be renamed: Copper: Exposition Dump. Everything in the show is annoyingly obvious, and then frequently repeated in case we didn’t catch it the first two instances. At times, as during a scene in which Corcoran is beating up another gentleman and yelling, “I’m a cop. I’m beating you up,” it’s almost as if the show were written for blind people who need to be clued in as to what is happening on screen. It’s infuriatingly on-the-nose, which is a shame because there’s a compelling story buried underneath the muck of exposition.

There’s a lot going on in BBC America’s first original series. Maybe too much. Detective Corcoran lives in the the Five Points area of New York City, and on account of his missing wife and murdered daughter, Corcoran takes a special interest in the downtrodden folks of his community, who are more often than not the victims of members of high-society. He investigates those matters with the assistance of his best friends and partners, Detective O’Brien (Dylan Taylor) and Detective Maguire (Kevin Ryan). He’s also assisted by their 1860’s version of a forensics expert, Doctor Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), who is black and therefore not allowed to take credit for his deductions (Freeman and his wife are also dealing with life in a post-Emancipation Proclamation America). There’s also a brothel run by Eva Heissen (Franka Potente), which provides a bridge between the immigrants of Five Points and the elites of Manhattan and Eva, a potential love interest for Corcoran. Meanwhile, Corcoran’s connection to high society is Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmidt), a close friend of Corcoran’s from the war whose life was saved by Doctor Freeman. Morehouse is a bon vivant who thwarts his father’s expectations and instead drinks and cavorts with prostitutes, and so far, Schmidt is the show’s most magnetic presence.

The first case in what can best be described as CSI: Kerosene Lamps, involves a set of 10-year-old twins-turned-prostitutes, one of whom is murdered while the other is trying to avoid the same fate. The mystery itself, which unfolds over the first two episodes, is fairly compelling and would be interesting if the writers would give its audience a little more credit for their ability to keep up without having everything spelled out for them.

In fact, there are some rich themes being developed in Copper, as it attempts to tackle class issues, race issues, the immigrant experience, police corruption, and the various relationships held over from the Civil War, all of which is framed by the far-more interesting series-arc investigation.

Like another Deadwood-lite drama, Hell on Wheels, Copper is watchable and, once it gets out from under the exposition dumps, it manages to better navigate itself through a series of violent confrontations. There’s a very good story brewing underneath, it’s just not written particularly well, and there’s not enough in the performances to overcome the bad writing. Tom Weston-Jones, in fact, is more wooden than a Keanu Reeves doll whittled from a tree, and much of the rest of the cast is only marginally better.

But it’s definitely worth a look-see; there’s too much talent behind the camera (it comes from writers behind Southland and Homicide: Life on the Streets, and executive producer Barry Levinson) not to believe that Copper won’t eventually find better footing. It’s unlikely to be a great show, but it may turn out to be a decent one. It still has some work to do to get there, however.

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