Judge Jason Panella is sick of getting punch in the face every time he goes back to Five Points.
Our review of Copper: Season Two, published January 17th, 2014, is also available.
In 1864, he was New York's finest.
Copper sounds like it could be an awesome show. It's a crime drama! And it's set in 1864 New York City! And the writing/producing team has a pretty impressive pedigree!
While Copper: Season One has a fair number of splendid moments, the show can't seem to figure out what it wants to do from episode to episode, which results in some equally enjoyable and frustrating television.
Facts of the Case
Irish immigrant Kevin "Corky" Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones, Spooks) returns home to New York City from the Civil War to find his his wife missing and his daughter dead and buried. Now back to duty as a police detective in the bustling, lurid Five Points neighborhood of the city, Corky and his friends and associates try to figure out what happened to his family.
The first original show produced by BBC America, Copper sets the tone right out of the gate. We see detective Corcoran lurking about a squalid, cramped slum quarter in Five Points as he waits to foil a bank robbery. His fellow detectives Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan, Songs for Amy) and Andrew O'Brien (Dylan Taylor, Defying Gravity) wait in the nearby muck and haze. In the next two minutes, we get to see the Cliff Notes version of the mid-19th century New York story: a child prostitute, shoddy living conditions, the authorities shooting first (and not really asking questions at all), mass looting, and police corruption from the top down.
Copper is set right after the infamous Draft Riots ripped through New York City, when tension between races, ethnicities and social classes were at an all-time high. Creators/writers Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide) and Will Rokos (Southland, Monster's Ball), along with executive producer Barry Levinson (Rain Man), picked an era ripe for exploration. The Civil War was still raging, the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine all but controlled the city, and New York—especially a neighborhood like the Five Points—was a densely populated, chaotic place.
The main cast shows how diverse the city's population had become, too. Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid, Blood Ties) is the son of a wealthy uptown industrialist, his amputated leg a reminder of the time he spent in the Union army as Corcoran's commanding officer. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh, Blue Bloods) is a former slave and brilliant self-taught physician who also served with Morehouse and Corcoran. We also get to follow English socialite Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith, Damages), brothel owner Eva Heissen (Franka Potente, Run Lola Run), and the aforementioned child prostitute Annie (Kiara Glasco).
The show spends most of the time with Corcoran, whose days seem to consist of intense brooding, face-punching, and prostitute-bedding. He's not a heroic man, by any means, and seems to have no qualms resorting to violence in almost any given circumstance. But as Raymond Chandler put it, he's the best man in his world. Morehouse and Freeman also have their own plotlines in the season's narrative (in the city's high society and in the African-American communities, respectively), and the two cross paths with Corcoran frequently, often bringing historical events or characters along with them. This is where the problems start, though. In some episodes, the show manages to seamlessly shift between the back alleys of the Five Points, the uptown sitting rooms, and Freeman's seemingly isolated homestead north of the city. More often than not, though, the show bumbles between the three settings while trying to find ways for the characters to run into each other. Freeman suffers the most from this; when the doctor isn't being enlisting by Corcoran to pull crazy forensic stunts, it feels like he's in a different, more evenly keeled show.
While a ton of effort was given to recreating the Five Points neighborhood for the show, there's a weird disconnect. The sets look great, the attention to detail is incredible…but for what at the time might have been the most densely populated neighborhood in the world, the Five Points in Copper seems empty. There are often a lot of extras in each scene, but any time the camera pulls back and show the obviously CGI-ed expanse of the city, Five Points looks hollow and really, really fake. Freeman's homestead is the only place that actually looks real, because it is real. It doesn't help that the people who inhabit it on the show are clumsy, one-note caricatures: secretly corrupt clergy, hookers with hearts of gold, cardboard ethnic stereotypes, and so on.
The biggest problem comes from how tonally unbalanced Copper is. Most of Fontana's and Rokos's scripts try to balance tense drama, action, intrigue, mystery and humor. It sometimes works, and in these spots the show really kicks ass. But when it doesn't, the mood shifts drastically and it all comes off as an artless, fumbling mess. One moment, O'Brien is pulling the comic relief card, and the next moment people are getting shot in the face. Not that it's impossible to make that shift work, but it comes off as ham-handed here. It doesn't help that the cast sometimes seem as if they're doing line readings in front of a bathroom mirror. Essandoh and Ryan are the only two that really seem like they're at ease on screen, the latter sadly not getting too much screen-time until the latter half of the season. Still, when it works, it really works, especially when some historical events and situations are involved. There are some ambitious, well-filmed moments that are unlike anything else on TV.
The standard def 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen visuals looks great, and the Dolby 5.1 Surround track is similarly excellent. This first season's ten episodes are spread out over three discs along with a generous helping of extra material. Half of the episodes have a commentary track with different cast combinations (the most entertaining: Weston-Jones, Schmid, and Essandoh). "Fontana in Five Points" follows the co-creator through present-day Manhattan as he explains where various buildings used to stand. "Behind the Badge: The Making of Copper" is a lengthy, compelling look into the show's creation and filming. The extras also include a number of character profiles and design shorts, plus almost 40 minutes worth of substantial deleted scenes. The extras are interesting enough that I'd rather watch the making of featurette again over a few of the season's episodes.
Copper: Season One is often entertaining and ambitious television, but frequently a gigantic mess. There's so much potential here I have to recommend it…with reservations.
We're gonna keep pounding on your face 'til ya say "not guilty," boyo.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC America
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