Sometimes, less is more. But sometimes, there’s delirious pleasure in heaping more upon more. Like, for example, when you take a perfectly wonderful candy bar—a symphony itself of caramel, nougat, peanuts, and chocolate—and freeze it onto a stick, then dip the thing in batter and deep-fry it. On paper, even to a lover of sweets, the idea may read like needlessly piling virtue upon virtue, with the risk that you end up with nothing that’s distinctly anything and which tastes merely of greasy excess. But of course, when such an ambitiously layered confection works, it’s genius, and Ripper Street reminds me simultaneously of lots of different things while somehow being its own magnificently mashed-up thing.
BBC America just began airing the series which had its debut in the UK last year. It’s set in Whitechapel, London’s East End, circa 1889, and features the police of H Division, notably Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) and his tough-as-nails Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn). Reid is a man of reason and dedication, dismayed at the continuing hysteria and ghoulishness on his turf caused by the Ripper’s recent crimes. He previously investigated those crimes with the now-haunted and still-possessive Chief Inspector Fred Abberline, who will reappear along with rumors of the Ripper’s resurgence.
If you’re spoiler sensitive, view the premiere before reading on.
Reid's Sergeant Drake is solid, loyal, and canny, able to give as good as he gets (check out the puncher’s tooth he gets stuck in his knuckle—eeew). We get to see plenty of bare-knuckle, quick-cut fighting action, a la the recent movie franchise of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr. Drake doesn’t seem to mind being sent undercover to fight, and provides muscle for police interrogations as well, but Reid is most interested in burgeoning new scientific methods, sometimes those beyond the conventional acceptance of his organization, even his own right-fist man. (This tendency reminds me of another detective, William Murdoch of the fantastical Murdoch Mysteries, set in the Toronto of the late 19th century.)
For these scientific situations, Reid calls in the assistance of a shady former U.S. Army surgeon, also a former Pinkerton man and American ex-pat, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). As he and Jackson examine an assaulted and carved-up woman’s dead body, the graphicness and dialogue about the killer’s underlying persona and motivations border on modern profiling shows (hello, Criminal Minds).
For his part, Capt. Jackson seems to have taken up as many things as he seems to have quit and lives, utterly dissolute but stubbornly brilliant, in a brothel run by Long Susan (MyAnna Buring). Their relationship seems “complicated,” as they protect each other, seem both to feel responsible for the brothel and its whores, and bicker like siblings. However, Long Susan isn’t keen on Jackson’s growing friendship with Reid, as it risks exposing their dealings and as yet mysterious past together in America. She also doesn’t seem to to be entirely pleased that Jackson harbors a special tendre for the naked ministrations of her doxy Rose Erskine (Charlotte McKenna). It’s just an accident of air times that this sweet-faced brunette reminds me so much of another big-eyed working girl, Ellen May of Justified. However, that we’re going to have a recurring brothel setting and its characters clearly recalls shows from Deadwood to Copper, and Jackson’s designed to infuse Olde London with Old West twang and swagger.
The sets and costumes are fantastic, and the series is filmed on location in Dublin. I’d previously assumed UK productions all paid membership dues to keep a standing East End set coated with mud and stuffed with sooty-faced urchins. Unlike the distinctively grainy Copper, Ripper Street’s cinematography is sharp and clean, abundant with rich textures and colors that aren’t Matrix-dingy or artistically overheated.
Especially when the sets are so detailed, I like getting to see them in panorama at times, not feeling shoved up the nose of one out-of-focus character after another as if we’re having a fight in a phone booth during a Starsky and Hutch episode.
Another touch I enjoyed and hope to see again is a weaselly character who puts the pressure into the word press. Editor Fred Best (David Dawson) is a proud populist muckraker, calculating and conniving, perfectly willing to fan the flames of panic, even if it means planting evidence in an already horrific crime scene. Reid won’t kill him, so he finds himself alternately threatening and negotiating with him. Plotwise, the first episode of Ripper Street has no less than: a possible Ripper killing, faked evidence, a wife posing for smut to support her churchy husband, an almost suicide, debauched aristocrats, the first snuff films, an almost burning to death of all three main characters, the MacGyvering of handy chemicals into gunpowder by clever Reid, boxing fraud, counterfeiting, the yellow press, kidnapped whores, and a successful suicide. That’s not all!
(The way Reid’s clippings and photographs become visual displays of epigraphic investigative material reminded another viewer of Homeland. Not my idea, but now that it’s mentioned…um, yeah, I can see that, too!)
I’d wish that our hero could find a moment of solace from the competing stresses and his own desperate drives, but, alas, home is no guaranteeed safe haven. His wife Emily (Amanda Hale) seems respectable and dutiful, caregiving to him if not particularly intimate at the moment. However, her avid church-going and dark dress, along with the mid-day silence of a house become purposeless, rang my story sonar. My initial guess was that the mourning was over a dead child rather a parent—because what teleplay writer bothers for that?—and sure enough, the character notes on the network’s site say there’s a little girl lost to them. As Reid changes clothes after a miserable night, revealing his not-very-good left arm and stiff shoulder are laced with scarring that looks like old burns, I can only guess at the tragedy behind them (and also to think of ever-wounded Dr. House). However, there’s one detective, above all, I think Reid resembles most. Due to Matthew Macfadyen’s perpetually freighted expressions, Reid reminds me most of the tormented Detective Robert Goren, played by Vincent D’Onofrio in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Intelligence and passion war within them, and they face the seaminess of their worlds with disappointment, occasional disgust, certainly anxiety over the next case and the next, but only rarely satisfaction.
With all this going on, truly, Ripper Street should strike me as one hot mess, but I’m quite entertained so far and think it’s holding together just deliciously. The second episode airs tonight as this post is scheduled to go live. We’ll have updates, of course, but how do you like it so far?