Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

‘Copper’: A 19th-century drama that could use a little more shine

© BBC AMERICA/Cineflix (Copper) Inc. - Detective Kevin Corcoran of “Copper,” played by Tom Weston-Jones.

A decree went out across the land some time ago that every cable and broadcast network (but especially every cable network) must direct its best efforts to the establishment of a compelling Sunday night drama. It should start at 10 p.m., but it can also start at 9 p.m., but in no case may it air on any other night but Sunday.

Perhaps the covert mission here is the utter meltdown and destruction of America’s beloved DVR machines, many of which can record a few shows at once, but none of which can keep up with as many hour-long Sunday shows as they are now programmed to save. Let us now praise “on demand” services. Caving into peer pressure, BBC America is joining the Sunday-night mob this week with its first-ever original series — that is, made specifically for BBC America, rather than imported from across the pond.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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(© BBC AMERICA) - “Copper”: Detective Kevin Corcoran, played by Tom Weston-Jones.

(© BBC AMERICA) - Eva Heissen, played by Franka Potente.

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It’s a crime saga called “Copper,” which is about the seamy life of a policeman who works that middle-19th-century cesspool known as New-York. (Why did New York ever get rid of its fancy hyphen, anyhow?) It may seem odd for me to dwell on what night the channel has decided to air it, except for the fact that “Copper” feels like a transparent act of aspirational programming — a tacit acknowledgment of prestige envy, in which a half-good idea for a drama is pressed and prodded into the self-seriousness of Sunday night worthiness. Doing that brings some of “Copper’s” weaknesses to the forefront.

Set in 1864 — just a year after the violent-prone world depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York” — “Copper” is a big, bawdy, bar brawl of a show with a lot of cold glares and sewer rats. Even with all that, much of “Copper’s” violence, plot twists and germy sex feels somewhat cobbled together from scraps of other tales about post-Industrial Revolution Manhattan.

The show also bears a passing resemblance to TV’s recent attempts to grittify the western — both HBO’s “Deadwood” and AMC’s just-returned “Hell on Wheels” spring to mind, but that may have to do with the facial-hair styles and string ties as much as the coarseness and bloodiness. “Copper” is a western for the East Coast. I guess this could be called an eastern.

Tom Weston-Jones, a fine marble slab o’ man, stars as Kevin Corcoran, a steel-willed, free-ranging detective (and Civil War vet) in the bitterly corrupt NYPD. His beat is the dreaded Five Points neighborhood, where crime and mayhem occur constantly, especially during its drunken nights. The bank robberies, the murder sprees, the brothels — this is Gotham on the precipice of its megalopolis phase, a corrupt and dank stew. Part of the appeal of watching “Copper” is to assess its handling of atmospherics and period detail: Does it transport you to the 1860s? Here and there, yes — but not fully.

Detective Corcoran is a cipher, whose motives aren’t purely heroic. He’s trying to find out what happened to his wife, who disappeared while he was at war; he also wants to know who murdered his young daughter. These unsolved cases have wounded his soul, turning him into a seeker of justice for New York’s downtrodden innocents — its orphan child prostitutes, its newly freed blacks, its dirt poor. Put a cape on him and he’s Batman. He even says Batman-ish things: “Oh, I hate all right, but not in general. My hates are as specific as my affections.”

“Copper” does have good pedigree. One of its creators, Tom Fontana, helped make “Oz” and “Homicide: Life on the Street,” among other dramas. Filmmaker Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Bugsy”) is one of the lead producers. The first two of this season’s 10 episodes have a confident, cinematic sense of pace and craft as we meet our copper’s friends and foes.

Corcoran’s battlefield buddy, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), is a member of the aristocracy who’s had his eyes opened to civil rights and class issues. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) is a black doctor whom Corcoran turns to for forensic assistance on murder investigations. Corcoran and his fellow officers blow off steam at the brothel run by Eva (Franka Potente), with whom the detective has a physical relationship.

The saga gets underway as Corcoran discovers the body of a girl and traces her to a twin sister (Kiara Glasco) who is attempting to escape the brothel in which she’s been forced into prostitution. The case sets the stage for “Copper’s” larger tale and themes — emancipation, the end of the Civil War, the emergence of a new working class, the influence of immigration, the city’s movement along and north of Central Park, and, through it all, the corruption that built New York’s greatness.

All of these characters and situations are mildly interesting, but it’s difficult to know from just a couple of episodes if they’re ever going to become desperately interesting. This is especially true of Weston-Jones’s performance — he’s fine to watch but difficult to relate to. That’s because “Copper” is yet another show where every character is damaged and complicated and doesn’t want to be related to. (Do they make any other kind of characters now?) You’ll find yourself weighing the faded allure of “Copper” against all your other Sunday-night obligations and your bursting DVR queue. Competition is stiff, and “Copper” may have to wait awhile.

Copper

(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.

on BBC America.

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