BBC America’s ‘Copper’ Inventively Explores the Wild Wild East
Copper, the newest TV series from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, feels and looks like a Western – but it’s actually set in New York City, during the Civil War, in a violent neighborhood called Five Points. And regarding Copper, I, too, have five points…
Point One: The setting. Five Points, the 1864 locale for this new 10-part BBC America series (premiering Sunday night at 10 ET), was the intersection of five streets in lower Manhattan, including Mulberry, occupied by warring, mostly Irish immigrants. Today, it’s occupied largely by Columbus Park in Chinatown and by a federal courthouse. But in 2002, it was dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a young man out for vengeance against the gang leader, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who killed his father.
Point Two: The era. It’s obvious why Fontana and series co-creator Will Rokos were so drawn to this particular point in American history. Modern polls state that the country is more polarized and bitterly divided than at any time since the Civil War – so why not go back to the Civil War era to probe similar conflicts about immigration and racism, poverty and corruption, and TV’s favorite standbys, sex and violence? Copper has them all – and in the very first episode.
Point Three: The genre. Copper features the wild, unkempt streets typical of HBO’s Deadwood, the superb David Milch series set in the Dakota hills of the 1880s. But this is set two decades earlier, and is an Eastern, not a Western. Yet it has, as its protagonist, a lawman – detective Kevin Corcoran, played by Tom Weston-Jones – standing up against corruption, but prone to violence himself, just like Timothy Olyphant’s Sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood.
Really, though, Copper is a mashup of other series as well. Like AMC’s Hell on Wheels, it’s got a continuing narrative in which the central character is avenging a fatal attack on his loved ones. And like a time-warped edition of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or an early-American Sherlock Holmes story, forensics and thoughtful investigation goes a long way. Corcoran even has his own Dr. Watson to assist his investigations – or at least a doctor, Matthew Freeman (played by Ato Essandoh, above), an African-American whose friendship with Corcoran was forged when they both served the side of the Union in the Civil War. Watching Freeman identify a murder weapon, and Corcoran a murderer, with so little science at their disposal is part of the fun here.
Point Four: The cast. Weston-Jones (top) is a strong, believable leading man – and when he takes a severe beating in the second episode, you feel his pain. You even feel his pain when the doctor arrives to treat him afterward, because the treatment’s almost as brutal. Other cast members include Franka Potente as a well-connected madam, Kyle Schmid as the seemingly rebellious son of a New York power player, and, in a recurring guest role, Kiara Glasco as Annie, (left) a young girl with a tragic past and a very uncertain future.
Point Five: The quality. This comes from Levinson and Fontana, so you expect quality – and you get it. Only the first two of this first season’s 10 episodes were provided for preview, but two episodes were more than enough to get drawn into the plot and setting, and to be intrigued by the characters, including some of the initially minor ones.
I’ve been pining for Deadwood ever since it left HBO prematurely. It’s way too early to anoint Copper as the substitute for that loss – but for now, it’s the first period TV series since Deadwood to have that potential.