History & Film: BBC America’s Copper series
by Bethany Latham
GANGS? HOOKERS? 1864? WE’RE IN.
So quoth reviewer Tim Stack1 about the BBC America series Copper, which saw its first season last year, and is nearing the conclusion of its second. Created by Tom Fontana (of Homicide: Life on the Street fame), helmed by executives who also worked on Mad Men, and produced under the auspices of the BBC, one would have great expectations for such a series. It also has the advantage of a unique setting. With the exception of Martin Scorsese’s bombastic and blood-soaked revenge saga, Gangs of New York, the combination of this particular time period and location – New York’s Five Points during the end of the Civil War – has seen remarkably little play in film and television. This is surprising when viewed in light of its dramatic potential and the opportunity it provides for comparison with our modern society, where moral ambiguity, racial tension, and political corruption resonate all-too-familiarly with contemporary audiences.
Due to a number of factors, the New York of 1864-65 was a brutal place. Famine and unrest in other countries drove the number of new immigrants up, and these latest additions to the melting pot often faced uncertain prospects, if not abject poverty. Soldiers, inured to violence by the horrors of war, passed through the city on the way to their campaigns, or made it their home after discharge or desertion. Each vote was bought and paid for by a city government awash in graft and nepotism, trickling down even to individual police precincts. The result was catastrophic. The 1865 “Annual Report of the Board of Metropolitan Police Commissioners” noted that “the whole system needs reform…all these officers are, unfortunately, dependent in a measure for their places on the very offenders they are called to punish.” This same report described the Civil War as “a school of violence and crime,” with the end result being that “in no city in the civilized world is human life so lightly prized and subject to as great hazards from violence as in New York…The practice of taking human life on slight or no provocation has fearfully increased.”2
It is this atmosphere that Copper so adeptly depicts, a morass of evil and ignorance so dark that justice is swallowed whole. The series revolves around “copper” Kevin “Corky” Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish-American detective of the Sixth Ward (police precinct), the beat which includes the slums of Five Points. Corcoran’s personal life is complicated: his child has recently been murdered and his wife is missing. While trying to keep himself alive and do his job, he’s also obsessed with discovering the identity of the murderer and what happened to his wife. Still, he finds time to take solace in the arms of Eva (Franka Potente), prostitute and proprietor of Eva’s Paradise, the premiere whorehouse in Five Points. Corcoran is aided in his investigations by his partner and best friend, Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), and fellow detective Andrew O’Brien (Dylan Taylor). The final member of the team is the African-American doctor, Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), who served with Corcoran in the army and comes in handy when there’s a body to be examined.
But Copper doesn’t limit itself only to the slums of Five Points; viewers are also given a peek at Manhattan high society in the persons of Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) and Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith). Morehouse moves in powerful circles, which occasionally benefits his army buddy, Corcoran, but Morehouse isn’t above using Corcoran to further his own ends, and he’s hamstrung by his corrupt father. Through Morehouse, Corcoran meets the sophisticated and beautiful English socialite Haverford, a connection which complicates his relationship with Eva. Starting to sound like a soap opera? You don’t know the half of it.
And this is, perhaps, where Copper begins to falter. Though it’s ostensibly BBC television, it’s BBC America television, and features a uniquely American aesthetic, which one critic described as “a high level of sensationalistic violence, sex and all-around turpitude presented in a package so stuffy and politically correct that it makes your eyes bleed.”3 Each character has his or her own side and backstory, and the result is, as in other millenial “historical” offerings (The Tudors, The Borgias, Boardwalk Empire, Rome, Deadwood, et al.) a betrayal-fest which results in very few sympathetic characters. It’s a case of situational ethics (when ethics are evident at all) run amok. With the exception of Corcoran and Freeman, one is hard-pressed to develop any kind of emotional involvement (unless it be distaste). This attempt at gritty realism may more closely represent the realities of human interaction (for once, the prostitute doesn’t have a heart of gold), but it can make for a show that’s difficult to watch, and a feeling that one needs to shower afterwards. Copper’s NYC is an 1860s Gomorrah; filth pervades everything, literally and metaphorically. Police and criminals act in like manner. Vice is omnipresent, even in the most unlikely of places. In the pilot episode, Corcoran waits in a barn to ambush bank robbers (summarily blowing them away so the detectives can skim off the top before their sergeant arrives to claim what’s left of the loot). Others have taken shelter in the barn, amongst them little urchin Annie (Kiara Glasco), beautiful underneath all the dirt. When the compassionate Corcoran offers her food, to his surprise, she immediately attempts to thank him by offering to “service” him. While he views her as surrogate for his dead daughter, his further attempts to help an irreparably damaged child result in an unhealthy (and blatantly sexual, since she knows no other emotional currency) attachment on Annie’s side, which only deepens when Corcoran aids the 12-year-old in the commission of a brutal, revenge-driven double-murder. Half Rhoda from The Bad Seed and half Claudia from Interview with the Vampire, Glasco’s portrayal is wholly disturbing. Many of the other characters are no more palatable.
So if you haven’t already gathered as much, know that this is intentionally “gritty” TV, dark themes unrelieved by sunlight or warmth. Amongst all the violence, debauchery, and occasional police procedure, the series attempts to address social issues, most of them racial in nature, and paint an enormous canvas in the way of historical setting. The last of these is not convincingly achieved, despite adequate (if primarily dirt-caked) costuming and sets. Something about the series feels undeniably artificial, and it isn’t the production’s penchant for green screen. It may simply be that the actors, while competent, haven’t yet found their groove. I confess to some disappointment with the first season of the series. But the potential is there, and it will bring me back for the second season, to see if that potential is realized…or squandered.
1. Stack, Tim. (June 1, 2012) “Gangs? Hookers? 1864? We’re in.” Entertainment Weekly. Issue 1209/1210, p. 69.
2. (January 5, 1866) “Annual Report of the Metropolitan Police Commissioners for the Year 1865.” New York Times. Accessed from: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F10C16FC3E59137A93C7A9178AD85F428684F9
3. Hale, Mike. (August 16, 2012) “Fighting Crime in an Older, Dirtier Manhattan.” New York Times. Accessed from: http://tv.nytimes.com/2012/08/17/arts/television/copper-a-bbc-america-series-set-in-old-new-york.html?_r=0
About the contributor: BETHANY LATHAM is a professor, librarian, and Managing Editor of HNR. She has written a book, Elizabeth I in Film and Television (2011), and she also publishes in various scholarly and popular journals, as well as writing for EBSCO’s NoveList database. She serves as Internet Editor and a regular reviewer for Reference Reviews.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 65, August 2013