Life is brutal, filthy, bloody, and brief in Copper, which begins a 10-episode first season Sunday at 10 p.m. Our heroes are the closest we get to goodness in the drama, set in 1864 in New York's infamous Five Points neighborhood, a working-class powder keg considered one of the most dangerous places in America.
Copper, created and produced by Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street collaborators Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, is the first original production by BBC America, which has made a name for itself with its eclectic mix of British imports, including Life on Mars, Luther, Extras, and Doctor Who.
Unique, powerful, exciting, if a bit uneven in its opening episode, Copper is at once a police procedural and an incisive and expansive historical drama about the birth of modern New York.
Corky, a former champion boxer, became a Civil War hero as one of the leaders of the Union Army's Irish Regiment. And he won the eternal gratitude of one of New York's most powerful men when he carried the industrialist's wounded son, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), to safety on his back through miles of hostile territory.
Corky is played with a blustery, dangerous, and sexy swagger by British newcomer Tom Weston-Jones ( MI-5, World Without End). The character's explosive rage conceals an impressive intellect.
He inhabits a morally ambiguous world where corruption is a given and righteousness is a luxury only the rich can afford. While he has a keen moral sensibility, he knows he has to pick his battles carefully.
"He won't take backhanders from his superiors or bully suspects," said Weston-Jones, speaking by phone from his north London home. "Above all, he loathes bullying and hates people who abuse their power."
Weston-Jones said Corky's motives were not entirely honorable: He decided to become a detective when, upon returning from the war, he found his young daughter had been murdered and his wife kidnapped.
Copper's first two episodes find Corky investigating the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl. We find out early that she died after being sold to a wealthy pedophile by one of the city's most exclusive brothels.
As one of his superiors says with disdain, Corky uses "modern methods of detection," including forensic science - an art being developed by one of Corky's closest friends, Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African American surgeon he met during the war.
"Freeman is a brilliant doctor. And he's working on cutting-edge science, and if he were able to be recognized he could have revolutionized New York," Essandoh - who has had recurring roles in Damages and Blue Bloods - said by phone. "But because of the political milieu . . . he has to work in secret."
Freeman, we learn, also was the man who actually saved Morehouse's life - an act of heroism that must be kept secret from Morehouse's racist father.
Despite his bitterness, Freeman is the most morally unambiguous character in Copper, said Essandoh: "I would put Freeman at the show's moral center. He can't afford to be morally ambiguous. As a black doctor, he cannot do anything remotely unethical."
Essandoh said that despite their class differences, their wartime experiences made Freeman, Corky, and Morehouse lifetime comrades and allies. Their efforts to keep one another from harm form the crux of much of the series.
"Morehouse goes to Harvard to follow in his father's footsteps," said Schmid by phone. He's an Ontario-born actor best known for playing a vampire in the detective series Blood Ties. "But he runs away so he could get his father's attention by becoming his own man, in the process losing his leg - and gaining two friends."
Schmid said Morehouse was a deeply riven man, a dissolute drunk and womanizer - but one who has acquired a conscience. Morehouse has grown to deplore his father's ruthless business practices and exploitation of the poor.
Essandoh said the series will push the trio into places unexpected and dark: "There are a lot of twists and turns this season."
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani
at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Television
10 p.m. Sunday on BBC America.