It's 1890 in London, two years after the last known murder perpetrated by Jack the Ripper. But the citizens of Whitechapel still are reeling. Detectives have failed to find him, and many East Enders believe it's just a matter of time before the killer strikes again.
The engaging new thriller "Ripper Street" (8 p.m. Jan. 19, BBC America; 3 stars out of 4) begins with their worst fears. A Jack the Ripper tour group finds the body of a dead woman. "Murder! Murder!" cries the tour's leader.
Fearing the worst, Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) confiscates the body and enlists the help of American Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), an ex-Army surgeon who is the closest thing Reid has to a medical examiner, to figure out if this new murder is Jack's work.
"I must be sure," Reid says, "before that hell rises again."
The evidence leads Reid, his right-hand man and muscle, Sgt. Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), and Jackson through the foggy London streets and into the city's sordid porno underground, where they discover evidence of a newfangled camera that makes photos move. The "extraordinary" device is being used to make snuff films.
Clearly "Ripper Street" isn't afraid of getting dirty. The womanizing Jackson spends much of his time at a local brothel run by a madame called Long Susan Hart (MyAnna Buring), with whom he fled America and shares an apparently damning secret. In the second episode, someone, possibly a member of the Dickens-like child gangs roaming the streets, kills a toymaker and rips out his tongue.
"Ripper Street" is a crime procedural, but it's dressed up in stylish Victorian-era clothing. Created by Richard Warlow ("Mistresses"), it is loosely based on people and events from that time period--which gives it a fascinating secondary layer. Modern forensics tools, such as the motion-picture camera, were just being invented. Reid knows he and his team are living on the cusp of a new era in police investigation.
Macfadyen, Flynn and Rothenberg deliver superb performances, and the supporting cast is equally wonderful. Since no hero on TV is squeaky clean these days, it's hard to make a character's flaws seem compelling. These pioneering police investigators are just as troubled, but I want to learn more about what ails them.
Speaking of the potential cliches on TV, it's worth mentioning that "Ripper Street" bears many similarities to BBC America's other blood-soaked, moody crime drama, "Copper," which is set in 1864 New York City. But while "Copper" took some time to get into a groove, "Ripper Street" is riveting from the first cry of murder.
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