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Copper: Surviving Death (Pilot)

Copper is a British show that takes place in 1860's New York. The action centers around the Five-Points area of Manhattan, which was a notorious slum riddled with crime and disease. It is the first original scripted show produced by BBC America, and it stars Tom Weston-Jones. He's an actor that was born in England and grew up in Dubai, who is playing an Irish-American detective. That feels like a lot of simple production obstacles that could easily strangle any show. In fact, my first impression was that it was trying to hard. Which was an impression that lasted for about the first ten minutes.

I can't quite place when it drew me in, but by the end of the first hour, it did. It probably had to do with lead, and his heroic efforts to solve the murder of a twelve year old girl. The nature of her murder I won't go into, but it was the kind of subject matter that would normally be hard to watch. But thankfully, they didn't spend too much time on the gruesome aspects of the crime. Instead, we were led around by Weston's character (Detective Kevin Corcoran). He was captivating in his somewhat brutal, but emotionally invested struggle to solve the crime.

Several details about his character were filled in. We found out that the good detective's wife is missing and his daughter died when she was only 6 years old. His partner, Detective Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) seems fiercely loyal and protective. And his lover, Eva Heissen, is the madam at the local whore house (played by Franka Potente of Run Lola Run and Bourne Identity). He is also friends with a black doctor named Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) who mentioned training in France.

The rest of the cast were all excellent, but they were introduced so fast that it was a little hard to track who was important until later on in the episode. What I did gather was that most were all typical archetypes for the time period. We got classics such as corrupt police, wealthy bastards, and good-natured whores. I'm hoping the generic nature of these characters might become a non-issue later on when their personalities are fleshed out. Thankfully, they all fulfilled their purpose rather well for the pilot.

I was impressed that the resolution to the story wasn't a neatly wrapped-up-in-a-bow reset button. It was incomplete, and involved messy ethical choices. Also, there were enough unanswered questions to keep me interested. This isn't quite Shakespeare in the mud (my favorite description of Deadwood), but it has some potential.

It airs Sunday nights on BBC America.

Samantha M. Quinn spends most of her time in front of a computer typing away at one thing or another; when she has free time, she enjoys pretty much anything science fiction or fantasy-related.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to more! :o)

    ARRRRRRRGH!!! Am on my 4th captcha try, these damn things are getting harder and harder to read! :o(

  2. I had really high hopes for this, because it has so many bits and pieces that I enjoy: mysteries, top hats and vests, 19th century American immigrants, boiled eggs.

    And I did enjoy it, but I'm not completely hooked yet. I especially didn't like the CSI stuff. That just isn't remotely likely for 1864 New York, and I would have rather seen them figure out how people could solve crimes without that stuff.

    There's a big (like, painful to read without a lap-pillow big) book called Gotham that is basically a chronological survey of Manhattan from pre-Europeans to 1920 or so. They've got a bunch of cool stuff in there about detectives, the invention of a police force, and the rise of the American cityscape. It's dry, but also fascinating.

  3. Josie, I totally agree about the CSI stuff. Even though, I didn't really absorb it the first time through watching it. For me it was because I'm not that familiar with Civil War era medicine, well except for some descriptions of what was used in the military camps... ick.

    From what I remember off the top of my head, the basic idea of forensics got some traction in the 1800's. However, I have no idea when specific techniques were developed.

    Also, now that you've pointed it out, the anachronism will drive me a little nuts. Which means, I hope that it doesn't become a reoccurring story crutch.

    I've never heard of Gotham, I take it from your description it isn't a novel?

  4. I only know a little about the science of forensic evidence, but most of it I picked up from Caleb Carr's novels, especially The Alienist. He, too, has his characters invent forensics a bit before the time, but he does a solid job describing the historical context in which they do so. Poe's detective stories do a good job of showing a weird slant on how the profession was feeling itself out, although obviously no random 19th-century cop is going to blather on about ratiocination while walking his beat. :-)

    And of course every fictional detective, from Sherlock Holmes to Det. McNulty on The Wire, has his Magical Strategy that makes him special and worth reading about. But the cool thing about Dupin, Holmes, Poirot, etc. is that their authors figured out a way to fill a lack in the contemporaneous detecting process, and they didn't have modern (to them, future) developments to do their creativity for them.

    The showrunners of Cooper haven't demanded that originality of themselves. They've just co-opted modern developments and retrojected them onto the 1860s.

    The bigger reason this bothers me is that shows, movies, and books that use that cheat transform history from "another country [where] they do things differently" to, like, Canada. That is, people were different back then. Their values were weird. In some times and cultures, their very way of thinking about the world were bizarre--we couldn't have remotely in-depth conversations with them, because we just wouldn't be speaking in the same ideas. (C.S. Lewis has a great illustration of this idea in one of his books on medieval literature, when he talks about the medieval worldview as one of stability, comfort, and order--and makes clear how that differs from the mid-20th century Western worldview of relativity, confusion, vastness, and disorder.)

    But when history is presented as just the same as our lives today, we lose the sense of the vast possibilities of how life can be lived and conceptualized. Learning that other people did things differently doesn't just make us feel cool. It reminds us that we, too, could do things differently. It reminds us that there are, historically, a billion different ways of living and understanding that life. But "historical" narratives that cheat? They shut down the possibilities of exploration, because they don't make us want more info. Why would we need it? They're just like us, only dirtier, more racist, and with worse science.

    Gotham is definitely not a novel. The prose is as parched as a textbook, but if urban history is your thing, it's one of the great ones. Burrows and Wallace are the authors.

  5. Woah Josie! Sounds like this is going to bother you quite a bit!

    On the whole I agree with you about lack of historical accuracy on such a significant plot point, but I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt for another couple of episodes to see just how far they take it... or if the story is interesting enough for me to ignore it.

    I get similarly annoyed when people try to judge the past from a modern world view... and sometimes I wish shows/movies were more accurate in portraying elements that are distasteful to a modern viewer to try and make them realise that people were DIFFERENT in the past! As a 1/2 Spaniard I get all annoyed when people criticize Spain for the colonization of the Americas and all that ensued... when they were just doing what Empires establishing themselves throughout History have always done. And many more cases such as that... *sigh*

    History is a fun place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there!

  6. Josie,

    That's an interesting point. Should a writer invest a significant amount of time to researching how people acted during the time period of the project they are working on? Or is it ok to fudge certain details and say it is a writer's prerogative.

    Don't get me wrong, I totally agree that using modern ideals in a period story make that story fundamentally flawed. But at the same time, do those flaws work to help the audience identify with the characters? Are they doing an an accurate representation, or just an interpretation?

    As a curiosity, which would be more appealing to you? Accuracy to the possible detriment of audience identification with the characters? Or a good story, that fudges details based on spotty history and a writer's imagination?

    It doesn't have to either or. Personally, I think it's possible to do both well. Maybe Copper will improve in this regard as the season progresses. I guess time will tell.


    I think it's fascinating how people look at history sometimes through rose-colored glasses. Idealizing certain events,places, and people as better (or worse) than they really were.

    It's worse when that happens in history books, which are supposed to be resouces that can be trusted.

    There's a comedian named Robert Wuhl that I like, he did this special about historical details that are supposed to be truth, that are in fact totally false.

    The idea is that pop culture dictates the truth of history, and when those lies are repeated enough, they become the history we know. I wonder what our history books will look like in a hundred years. I just hope there is enough truth left in our society to paint an accurate picture of this generation.

  7. I was thinking of The Alienist while I was watching this episode (except I couldn't remember the title of the book, so thanks for the reminder, Josie). The possible anachronisms were occurring to me as I was watching. But I still thought they did a decent job with difficulties of doing an historical cop series that would appeal to a modern audience. I'm not sure a totally accurate representation of what it was like back then would be connectible, if you know what I mean. Even Deadwood had to take some liberties with history.

    I'm not certain I was won over. I liked it enough to give it another episode, though.

  8. CrazyCris, that's a perfect example. Sometimes we reduce history to soundbites, like "Colonists are evil"--end of story. But there is no reason in the history of reasons why we can't say something even slightly more accurate: "By our modern standards, early-modern colonialism was atrocious. By theirs, it wasn't."

    I don't think it's equivocating to say that, either. I'm here in the US thanks to an ancestor who got sick of being oppressed and treated like cattle. I am 100% on the side of my ancestor (thanks for the transplant, dude!), not his oppressors. But I still understand what motivated that oppression. Would I shrug it off if modern countries acted the same way? No. Because our values are different, and I like our modern values just as much as those colonial oppressors liked theirs.

    By the by, Spain is in my top five places to live someday. I've never been, but everything I hear about it sounds like it's a place that's perfect for me, especially Barcelona.

    J.D. asked: "As a curiosity, which would be more appealing to you?"

    I don't honestly know. I'm so weirdly empathetic to fictional characters anyway--would that empathy decrease if they were completely "foreign" in the very abstract sense of the term? Probably. And that empathy is a big part of why I enjoy TV and books so much, so a show that did that would lose some of its luster for me. It would become an intellectual activity rather than an emotional one. That has its own benefits, but I'd certainly miss the emotional connection with the characters.

    I hope you're right, that it's possible to do both well. I've been watching The Wire lately (I'm on Season Three), and that show does a great job of "explaining" the culture of drug dealing, gangstas, etc. in a way that helps me understand the values that motivate that culture and how those values are different from my own. And I've found myself occasionally rooting for the bad guys to achieve their goals, even though their goals are horrendous. That's a slightly different case, though, since it's not the entire show that's different--just some of the characters, all of whom inhabit a world not that dissimilar to my own.

    With a show like Copper, I think it will boil down to the quality of everything else. If it's a good detective story, if it builds and interesting universe, if the characters are interesting, then I can ignore historical inaccuracy. But if the major appeal is meant to be the 19th-century stuff, and they muff that, it probably won't be a show I stay with for long. I'm definitely giving it a few more chances, though.

  9. I think in a TV era where you have shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or Downton Abbey which have a pretense of being historical correct as much as possible, you have to try to do this with your show if you want a historical setting and make a good, believable show.

    SPOILER (just in case)

    I liked the setting and the main character. But, and maybe I missed it, I would have liked to know how the rich guy knew he could buy the other guy? Why weren´t the details of the case not adressed when it got obvious they didn´t make sense with the story? And I got confused with the names and the faces. They could have introduced them better to help the viewer.


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