BBC America did well with “Copper” — a rather turgid detective drama, other than its 1860s setting — which bodes well for “Ripper Street,” another historical crime procedural, set a quarter-center later, which has the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper slayings as its beguiling backdrop. Although not without its flaws, the grim, pay-cable-like series benefits from a strong core cast and appealing look (minus a few glaringly bogus FX shots). Despite a notable dropoff from the first-rate premiere to the so-so second episode, for those drawn to the oft-told Ripper story, this is definitely a “Street” worth visiting.
Set in 1889, a year after the Whitechapel killings, the show focuses on the real-life character of Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), a savvy detective who worked the Ripper case as part of H Division; and Sgt. Bennet Drake (“Game of Thrones'” Jerome Flynn), his gruff bruiser of a sidekick. Add to that tandem Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), a former Pinkerton detective with a shadowy past and ties to a local whorehouse, whose knowledge of what amount to forensics causes Reid to enlist his help.
In the premiere, the grisly murder of a woman causes the area’s still-skittish denizens to worry that Jack is back, but as the key trio dig deeper into the case, the story actually becomes more interesting, cleverly capitalizing on the evolving state of photography and late-19th-century porn.
Created by Richard Warlow (“Mistresses”), the series not only focuses on a gritty environment and slightly backward aspect to policing (there are no qualms regarding, shall we say, enhanced interrogation), but also a population caught in the throes of fear and mild hysteria, which seems especially timely and appropriate. There’s also a nice rapport among Macfadyen as the brains, Flynn as the muscle and Rothenberg’s bon vivant Yankee.
Alas, the second hour in the eight-episode run is more mundane, dealing with the murder of a local toymaker and a gang of children being used, in Dickensian fashion, to perpetrate crimes. Still, it’s at least watchable, as much for its brooding atmosphere as the particulars of its crime-solving stories.
“Copper’s” flaws notwithstanding, its solid ratings demonstrated crime is one of those genres that travels pretty well, especially if you can put a clever twist on it. The combination of Ripper lore — which has inspired variations from “The Night Stalker” to “From Hell” to “Murder by Decree,” which put Sherlock Holmes on the case — with the era’s nascent science prove just familiar and exotic enough for “Ripper Street” to navigate past its occasional pot (or plot) holes.
It’s just too bad a show paved with such an enticing premise doesn’t get a little deeper under your skin.