Copper Series Premiere: “Surviving Death”

Kevin Corcoran, the copper
The copper himself
Full disclosure: I had low expectations for Copper, the BBC America original series that debuted last night. The hype surrounding its premiere made me wonder just who the network believed was the audience for this historical police procedural set in Civil War-era New York City. (I mean, honestly, they had the cast ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange last week.) Objectively, I should have been a prime target for this show. I love historical dramas and I’m a BBC devotee. But BBCA wasn’t aiming at me.

The fact that BBCA teased Copper nonstop during its recent airing of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York also gave me pause, for when I imagine the past, Cameron Diaz is not what I envision.

Things were veering directly toward Hollywood, which was understandable if (in my opinion) regrettable. Copper executive producer Barry Levinson and series co-creator/executive producer/writer Tom Fontana, who worked together on Homicide: Life on the Street and on Oz, are Hollywood names to reckon with. Will Rokos, the other co-creator/executive producer/writer, was Oscar-nominated for his Monster’s Ball screenplay. I can’t deny their success. Yet their bios on the Copper website don’t highlight the one thing I’d have thought would be vital for creating this show: experience working on historical drama.

Digging a little deeper, I found that Fontana has a series called Borgia that is available in the U.S. via Netflix. It stars John Doman (William Rawls from The Wire). It’s a hit in France and it should not be confused with Neil Jordan’s The Borgias on Showtime.

So, I’ll say this: Don’t let the BBC tag fool you. The production values, the acting and characterization, and especially the storylines and writing on Copper are strictly Big Three network stuff. As a series on, say, CBS, Copper would be about average. If you’re expecting full-on BBC/Masterpiece-style craft you might be disappointed.

We begin with Detective Kevin Corcoran of the Metropolitan Police, New York City, 1864. He’s played by series star Tom Weston-Jones, whose credits, I was told, include MI5, although I couldn’t for the life of me recollect his role. IMDB says he played Sasha Gavrik, the Russian diplomat’s son, in the final season.

The cops of Copper

Sporting a fashionable two-days growth of beard and wearing a knee-length leather coat that could have come directly from Prada’s Fall 2012 menswear collection, topped with a hat I think he borrowed from Jack White, Corcoran becomes involved in a shootout just minutes into the action. Bank robbers are apprehended, and Corcoran and his comrades proceed to fleece them of the cash and valuables they just stole from the bank. (Our hero is a rebel!)

By this time, we’ve also seen his first interaction with a child prostitute who—disturbingly—offers him her services in exchange for a hard-boiled egg. He declines her offer. Were we really supposed to believe he’d accept? (Our rebellious hero has honor!)

Yet, a scant 10 minutes in, Corcoran and his fellow coppers are blowing off steam in their favorite brothel, complete with gratuitous sex scenes and naked butts. (Copper is historical and hot!)

Eva Heissen (Franka Potente), who runs the brothel, is Corcoran’s main squeeze. Naturally, since Corcoran’s our hero, his girlfriend might be a prostitute, but she’s also a voice of reason, common sense, and sensitivity. (A hooker with a heart of gold!)

Still, we learn Corcoran’s only with Eva because his wife ran out on him while he was away fighting in the Civil War. (Our rebellious, honorable hero has been wounded by love!)

Then knock, knock . . . Corcoran’s assignation is interrupted by his friend Andrew O’Brien (Dylan Taylor), who tells him a body has been found and they must investigate. The victim is a child, killed by a blow to the head from a peculiarly shaped weapon. Corcoran, whose own young daughter was murdered, sets out on a crusade to find the child’s killer. (This time it’s personal!)

And on we go, leaping from one cliché to another, from one predictable manipulation to the next. It’s fine . . . but you can’t help thinking you’ve seen it all before in different places, with different clothes and different accents. The good guys are pretty standard and the bad guys might as well be wearing giant neon signs on their heads flashing “Don’t Trust Me!”

Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), the clever surgeon whom Corcoran befriended during his four years fighting with the Union Army, is a character with some potential. His trial-and-error forensic investigation into the child’s death was interesting to watch.

Kate, or is it Annie?
Creepy child prostitute
On the other hand, every female character in the episode is either a prostitute or a virtuous wife. And the child prostitute Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco) is just plain creepy. Resembling Angelina Jolie at age 10 and dolled up like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, she’s supposed to elicit our pity (at least I think that’s what she’s supposed to do). Instead, I found it impossible to believe she was human, especially when she recites—and reciting is the only way I can describe it—the tale of her fall into the world’s oldest profession. The lines she is given to speak are so cumbersome and stilted, you’d never imagine them coming from a Ph.D. in 2012, let alone from a child prostitute in 1864.

Am I quibbling? Yes. Will people love this series? Some will. Ten episodes have been made, so if you enjoyed the premiere you have something to look forward to. For me, however, Copper requires a lot of improvement to make it shine.

Did you watch? What did you think?

See all of our Copper coverage.

Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.

Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    Nice evaluation, Leslie. I also didn’t expect much so was not disappointed. I will try it again because it is set in my beloved NYC. and although my family lore of how the ancestors survived in the City only goes back to the 1880’s I don’t imagine there was a huge difference between 1864 and 1884, other than the Civil War aspect and the draft riots, which happened before this the first episode of this show. Poverty was abject and wealth was opulent.

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    There are hopes, and then there are expectations. I had high hopes but low expectations. I was disappointed that they took the easy (and cheap) way out just about every time with the plot and characterization and even the setting, but I’ll keep watching it for at least a few more episodes. Pilots are often rough. Heck, it often takes a whole season for a show to really find its groove.

  3. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    BBC America scored very big viewership numbers for this premiere, so the hype worked in the short term. Whether viewers will continue to watch is the question. Reviews have been lukewarm, and most are pointing out that the premise is interesting but the execution falls far short. (FWIW, I wish Barry Levinson had chosen to make this series about Baltimore instead of New York.)

    I believe the expectation created by the BBC name set the bar way too high for this crew. For anyone familiar with the ambience of BBC’s outstanding period dramas, Copper isn’t anywhere near up to standard. (And I’m not even talking about Downton Abbey, which is in a class by itself in terms of atmosphere and period detail.)

    Interestingly, it sounds like a lot of viewers were hoping Copper would be a worthy successor to Deadwood, which I never watched so I can’t comment about that–although the consensus seems to be Copper is no Deadwood.

    Only time will tell . . .

  4. Brianna

    One of my colleagues at Dish had to twist my arm for several days before I watched “Copper”. Even then I just watched it between two of my classes at Dish Online and I must say it does have my interest peaked. I agree that they did not spend a lot of money on production, which they probably should have with it being their series premier, but I think that “Copper” has a lot of potential. I have never watched “Dead Wood” either but if it is supposed to be better than this than I might have a new series to pick up.

  5. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    It would be great to hear from a Deadwood fan who watched the Copper premiere! Anyone?

  6. Quetzi P. Fernald

    [color=rgb(128, 0, 128)]I love this show. I find it verry entertaining & I love the fact that it’s set in this particular time period. This show is more than I expected & I’ve been glued to BBC every Sunday to find out what next is going to happen. It makes me feel sad for the people who actually grew up in this era because of the rampant poverty & crime that existed. Women especially didn’t have very many options open to them either. I can’t wait to see what happens next on tonights airing. So much has already happened in just 3 airings & I’m intrigued as to what happened to the detectives wife. The whole show is shrouded in mystery & I’m finding it exciting to watch! I highly recommend this show to everyone! It’s worth watching. ;)[/color]

  7. chris hickman

    Well, I’m not sure what you people are talking about, most BBC shows are absolutely horrid.I’m happy to see this show, 1 of the best i’ve seen from BBC in a very long time.Open your eyes people, I highly recommend this show!

  8. Copper Fan

    Being in the medical field, it’s interesting how they were able to solve crimes with so very little to work with!I do love the show..started off a bit slow but now I’m looking forward to the the next episode! On a humorous note..everyone for one reason or another is hittin’ the “liquid gold” grandfather is 96 and he tells me stories of back in his day you could buy it for ten cents at any local pharmacy..unreal!!

  9. Norvjen

    I just stumbled upon this sow. I am a fan of BBC and Masterpiece products generally. The plot and subplots are weak. The characters in this series are pedestrian and terribly uninteresting excepting the child prostitute who, I agree, is very creepy. Her dialog is disturbing and can only appeal to the pedophile. What is more disturbing is that her parents would allow her participation in such a tawdry vehicle and for her to spew such porno doggerel. If there is any shame left in the world, then shame on them with plenty left to go around to the writers and the BBC. I agree with the reviewer. Yuck.

  10. James_copperhead

    Many of you seem like “BBC” snobs. A period drama about an ex union soldier freshly returned from fighting on the frontlines of the civil war dealing with the crime, immigration and politics in 1860’s New York – awesome. It has a great mix of action and intrigue. I honestly don’t know what you people expect to be a entertaining TV show. As far as Annie Riley – that’s real life for you.

  11. Beaufort

    Interesting that the reviewer here sought to distance themselves from the idea of child prostitution. Like it would absolve them of any guilt. Now that’s creepy. Child prostitution happened, and still happens, unfortunately. We need not be compelled to distance ourselves just because we disapprove. How else can victims be helped after all?

  12. Jody Baer-Swanson

    It is extremely difficult to get me to watch shows of this nature and I absolutely loved it. The story of his wife really got to me and the way it all played out with his friend. I liked the child prostitute Annie and felt she brought an interesting sentiment to the story.

  13. Daniel Young

    Copper is brilliant! I find it reprehensible that so many people must resort to putting fresh new shows down instead of celebrating their genius & style. The Arm Chair critics need to lighten up & choose a new profession as we obviously cannot trust their views on what is a great little drama series

  14. William Alexander

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