BBC America can learn a lot from its British parent channel. BBC’s “Ripper Street,” which premiered on BBC America on Saturday, far outshines BBC America’s first foray into original programming, “Copper.” They are similar in theme — period pieces focusing on crime in dangerous sections of major cities — but “Ripper’s” late-Victorian glimpse of the murderous Whitechapel in London carries more weight than “Copper’s” post-Civil War Five Points in New York.
That may be thanks to Jack the Ripper himself, a figure looming large over Whitechapel in 1889 as residents remain terrified of the unknown murderer, on whom various newsmen and investigators are eager to pin gruesome crimes. The ITV series (also shown on BBC America) “Whitechapel” has already examined the Ripper cases by imagining copycats in modern-day London, and that show pairs nicely with “Ripper Street” in creating a sort-of bookended approach to the mystery: It’s still scary, and unsolved, whether you’re in the 1880s or 2000s. “Ripper Street” may be exploring well-trod territory, but it is territory that easily provides endless tales of debauchery and fear. It also is a tad bit “Law & Order: SVU” with bowler hats and whore houses, but it works.
The biggest factor separating “Ripper Street” from “Copper” has to be the casting: Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5,” Pride & Prejudice) leads the “Ripper” world of interesting and immediately likable characters as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, head of the Criminal Investigation Department in the Metropolitan Police’s H Division. He was the officer in charge of the inquiries during the early killings in 1888 attributed to Jack the Ripper, before Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline was called in. Abberline (Clive Russell) appears in the series, but the focus is on Reid and his steady approach to his job. He moonlights as a boxing organizer, collaborating with his co-worker Sgt. Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, “Game of Thrones) on throwing fights. Flynn’s Drake is practically an extension of his “Thrones” character Bronn; both men are loyal sidekicks and tough fighters, and they couple their strength with a laid-back attitude and humor.
He is a nice clash with the other member of Reid’s crew, Capt. Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), an American and former Pinkerton agent living (hiding out) in a Whitechapel brothel and maintaining a controlling relationship with its madam, Long Susan (MyAnna Buring). Reid deputized Jackson, a surgeon, to assist with investigations, and he smiles his rakish smile and uses his ahead-of-his-time crime scene investigation skills to help solve crimes. Considering Jack the Ripper’s (or whoever the murderer(s) was) victims were almost all prostitutes, you know the brothel won’t play a minor role. One of the prostitutes, Rose Erskine (Charlene McKenna), is caught up in a vice scandal involving aristocrats and pornography, an uncomfortable plot reminiscent of another BBC import, “The Hour.” She wants to escape her life, probably as much as Emily Reid (Amanda Hale, “The Crimson Petal and the White”), the inspector’s lonely wife, does.
“Ripper Street” opens with a tour guide leading gawkers through the twisty streets of Whitechapel, elaborating upon the crimes and legend of Jack the Ripper but not expecting to encounter any trouble. Too bad the group soon stumbles upon the body of a dead woman. Reid and company have to rush to solve the murder before word of it becomes sensationalized. The public already is in a panic thanks to the string of murders in the area, and the sense of fear and depravity is palpable. This isn’t like watching “Downton Abbey,” which makes one wonder what it would be like to be waited on hand and foot by, well, footmen, and valets and butlers, etc. Here, one wonders what it would be like to live in near-squalor, with a dead prostitute waiting for him in the alley. It is less pleasant, but infinitely more fascinating.
Because the cases were never solved, there is plenty of room to maneuver and tell engaging stories viewers won’t be able to guess immediately. A few hiccups appear in the pilot — the three main men having to escape from a locked and burning room was fairly unbelievable — but there is more to praise than pan. Macfadyen, Flynn and Rothenberg make an excellent team. If only their characters can find a sort of closure in the series. Their real-life counterparts surely had no such luxury.
“Ripper Street” airs Saturdays at 9/8C on BBC America.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.