TV so seldom ventures out of its designated boxes there’s a strong impulse to root for that which dares try. Yet the underlying ingredients in “Copper” — a Civil War-era drama set in a bustling New York City, and produced by acclaimed writer Tom Fontana — prove far more tantalizing than the resulting series. Grim, dark and violent, this BBC America offering isn’t terrible, but suffers from a flat-footed quality. Mostly, like AMC’s postwar experiment “Hell on Wheels,” it leaves one pining once again for the poetry of “Deadwood.”
Set in 1864, “Copper” centers on Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), a tough Irish cop and Civil War veteran introduced demonstrating just what a badass he can be. Working for a police force rife with corruption — crime scenes are an opportunity to line one’s pockets — Corcoran nevertheless operates under a code of ethics, while taking refuge from his personal pain and loss at a whorehouse where he’s close with one of the working girls (Franka Potente).
Corcoran’s partners, Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and O’Brien (Dylan Taylor), are also loyal, which becomes helpful when he’s drawn into a dangerous situation, investigating the grisly murder of a young girl that leads him into the corridors of privilege and power, including a wealthy heir (Kyle Schmid) with whom he served in the war.
Incorporating a cringe-inducing element of child predation as part of the initial plot, “Copper” resembles “Gangs of New York,” but more acutely brings to mind various versions of the Jack the Ripper story, in which investigators were handcuffed by a caste system protecting the ruling elite. In that regard, the first couple of episodes are less a mystery, per se, than a question of whether Corcoran will be allowed to dispense justice.
While the story does capture a sense of the times — and provides intriguing glimpses into the Manhattan of 160 years ago — as constructed, this can’t help but feel like “Deadwood” lite. Exploring this world from the perspective of a cop — and an emotionally scarred one at that — also saps some of the vitality from the concept. Indeed, a supporting character played by Ato Essandoh that’s both a doctor and a freed black hiding his medical knowledge, provokes more questions and interest than anything in the main story.
Even with its shortcomings, “Copper” exudes an atmosphere that, for those with a taste for this sort of thing, might merit a look, and the yawning gap between rich and poor brings an element to it that’s both timeless and timely.
Nevertheless, even for those who admire aspects of “Copper,” it’s difficult not to be disappointed by a series that plays, finally, like too much of a cop-out.