There are a host of shows created in the last decade that have tried to be the next Sopranos: Take a morally ambiguous protagonist, ideally involved in some kind of criminal endeavor, hopefully trapped in a difficult marriage or an otherwise fractious ongoing relationship. And there are just as many shows that have tried to be the next Wire — or anyhow, they’ve tried to be a version of The Wire that could actually attract a healthy amount of viewers, mixing the show’s specific strengths (twisty serialized narrative, massive cast, end-of-empire themes) with eyeball-grabbing affectations (sex, violence, sexy violence.)
But there’s a certain species of desperate TV fan that has been waiting six years for another Deadwood, a show from TV auteur David Milch that started out as a western and quickly evolved into a Dickensian panorama of American society, complete with Milch’s relentlessly quotable gutter-poetry dialogue. If Sopranos was TV-as-cinema, and The Wire was TV-as-great-American-novel, then Deadwood was TV-as-Broadway-play, creating a universe that felt at once overtly stagey and remarkably intimate.
I got serious Deadwood vibes from certain moments of the series premiere of Copper, the first original series on BBC America, which debuted on Sunday. Set in post-Civil War Manhattan, Copper is nominally a TV show about Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish cop living in a time when policemen were essentially just one more gang jockeying for power in a brutal city. In some respects, the first episode felt a little bit like a straightforward procedural. Corcoran found a dead girl and tried to solve her murder. He engaged in a bit of scientific crime solving, thanks to a helpful doctor who learned how to conduct remarkably accurate autopsies during the war.
The episode featured evil rich dudes and stern interrogations. There was even a Science Montage, where the doctor used his instruments to figure out the murder weapon. Throw in the sexual nature of the crime, and you could have been watching pretty much any CBS procedural, albeit with better hats.
But there were a lot of ambient pleasures in the first episode of Copper — enough to make me want to follow the series for a few episodes, if only to see how its larger ambitions will pay off. The opening scene followed Weston-Jones and his lookalike partner on a police sting operation, which concluded with all the criminals dead. (The cops grabbed some cash out of the criminals’ pockets before their superiors showed up — a scene unimaginable on straight-edge CBS.) The coppers on Copper spend most of their nights in a local whorehouse, and if some of the women seemed a bit close to the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, at least one of those hearts of gold belongs to the essential Franka Potente.
And there was one brilliant scene in the Copper premiere: The wealthy-villain murderer gets one of his underlings to take the fall for the crime. Corcoran visits the underling in his prison cell, and finds the man — a ruffian who worked as a bouncer at a high-class gentlemen’s club — basking in his imprisonment, drinking out of golden goblets and eating lavish food. He doesn’t mind that he’ll be executed soon; he’ll get to live like a king until then, and anyhow, he was dying of disease sooner or later. In this moment, Copper felt like a show that might actually have something to say about the separation between the rich and poor in America of 1864 — which is to say, the separation between the rich and poor in America, period.
Copper is co-created by Tom Fontana, who created the great HBO series Oz, and Will Rokos, who worked on a season of Southland. Oz was a great melodrama; Southland an exceptional cop show. Copper feels like it could go in either direction, and I’m inclined to stick around. What did you think, fellow viewers?
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