The biggest letdowns in TV come not from those series that crash and burn — that just plain don’t work and aren’t enjoyable to watch — but from those that manage to be just OK. There’s potential there, but the execution leaves one wanting. That’s sums up “Copper,” BBC America’s first foray into scripted series. The pilot is a good piece of drama sped up into a decent one — too much tries to happen with too many awkward edits in between for the story to play out as seriously as it wants to. There’s an ingredient or two missing, though it’s hard to quantify. It’s a shame because “Copper’s” pitch is a strong one: A morally iffy Irish American cop, Kevin Corcoran, patrolling the crooked corners of New York City’s Five Points neighborhood in 1864. His wife is missing; his daughter is dead. He is largely shaped by his fighting in the Civil War, his tenuous grasp on life matching the shaky state of the war-torn nation. Corcoran is a compelling idea for a character, but after our introduction to him, he’s not much more. He’s a shadow. “Copper” could be great, but it’s pretending to be instead.
Executive producers Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana and Will Rokos have an uphill battle with trying to probe dark subjects without being able to go as dark as premium cable networks can. For some audiences, it will work; “Copper” is gritty if you’ve never seen an HBO or Showtime series. (Interesting that Fontana was an executive producer on “Oz” as well as “Homicide: Life on the Street,” as was Levinson.) “Copper’s” pilot, “Surviving Death,” at least, starts with an unsettling subject: a child prostitute, Annie (Kiara Glasco). She watches Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) stake out a bank robbery, and he’s unsettled when she offers him her services. His instinct is to protect her, but his instincts also tell him to chase the robbers and shoot them dead without question. He has his principles, but he’s not above the game. Some of the robbers’ loot is easily pilfered by Corcoran and fellow detectives Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Andrew O’Brien (Dylan Taylor) before the corrupt Sergeant Padraic Byrnes (David Keeley) and bored Captain Ciaran Joseph Sullivan (Ron White) stop by to order the bodies moved from the neighborhood’s clogged, dirty streets. Life isn’t pleasant for the immigrant poor, and the men’s comfort is found at Eva’s Paradise, a saloon and brothel run by Eva Heissen (Franka Potente). Corcoran tries to forget his wife in the Madam’s room while Maguire contemplates making a wife out of the prostitute Molly Stuart (Tanya Fischer). (The married O’Brien stays dutifully downstairs.)
The bleakness of the time period is fairly well realized, from the recreated city streets down to the dirty clothes on everyone’s backs. It all presents a nice contrast to the neighborhoods of the upper class, where aristocrats like Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) wine and dine. The war first brought Corcoran, Morehouse and Morehouse’s valet, Matthew Freeman, together, and when the body of a young girl is found that Corcoran believes to be Annie, the three are brought together again. Corcoran takes the girl’s body to Freeman, an African American doctor who helps solve Corcoran’s investigations while receiving none of the credit. His forensic findings send Corcoran on a spree about town, pointing his gun at and even shackling and abusing those he thinks have information or are guilty of hurting the girl. Morehouse and fellow uptown acquaintances, a Mr. Haverford and his British wife, Elizabeth (Anastasia Griffith), are soon involved in the case, as is a Madam for the upper class, Contessa Popadau (Inga Cadranel). But as can be expected, the rich have a way of alluding punishment thanks to Corcoran’s bosses.
Class is as much a plot point as race and ethnicity, and no doubt the era is ripe with drama for the producer’s picking. The brothers of Freeman’s wife, Sara (Tessa Thompson), were lynched in Five Points by an Irish mob during the 1863 Draft Riots. He’s moving with her to the black community of Carmansville, where Corcoran is sure to stand out when he comes calling with another case to be solved. He, Freeman and Morehouse appear to be interlinked by something significant, however, and the complexities of their relationships could provide nice depth for the series. The same goes for Eva, whose no-nonsense approach to business and men is entertaining if not original. Corcoran is the biggest mystery. He’s hard to read, and even as we’re given reasons to sympathize with him (dead daughter, missing wife), he’s largely an unsympathetic character. We get hints about his determination to uncover the truth about his family, interspersed with displays of his temper, but not much else.
If only the premiere had been two hours instead of one, and if only commercial breaks had been planned while filming instead of cut in without transitions. “Copper’s” pilot lacks a certain polish and falls victim to an oft-occurring trend among new shows to cram too much information and not enough substance into the first outing. Even the music used feels out of place, the Irish styles often sounding too upbeat for the setting. Because if anything, this is a dark time to be living in America. Exploring that darkness could bring about a great story, and perhaps “Copper” will find its rhythm. Playing it safe is a waste of everyone’s time.
Copper airs at 10/9C Sundays on BBC America.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.