Original mean streets
It seemed like a good idea at the time: Convert an area in Lower Manhattan into a comfortable, racially integrated middle-class neighborhood as the city’s population swelled, largely through European immigration.
Things didn’t turn out so well, though: Before long, Five Points had become a crowded, diseased, heavily Irish slum, and even Charles Dickens, no stranger to urban squalor, was shocked by this “square of leprous houses ... reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” during a visit.
“It was built on an old stagnant swamp,” says Tom Weston-Jones, a British actor starring in a new series set in the accursed district. “So it started to sink, and it stank of methane.” The actor’s overall impression of the place, as the cast and crew behind “Copper” have re-created it, is claustrophobia. “There were two murders a night. The draft riots were a few months before. That’s the kind of shadow that overhangs it constantly.”
But what made Five Points in the Civil War years a dangerous powder keg could also make for an engaging television series. When the creators of the show talk about “Copper” -- the first scripted original show on BBC America -- they simultaneously stress the richness of its time and place and emphasize that it’s not really about that.
“Despite the fact that the show takes place in the 1860s,” says show runner Tom Fontana, “it will have a very contemporary feel. We are still dealing with the same issues they were then -- everything from racism to poverty, immigration, love, death, insanity, post-traumatic stress disorder.” Clothes and accents are different, he says, but we’re still blessed and cursed with human nature.
The 10-episode, hour-long show, shot in Toronto, launches Aug. 19, the latest artful effort on TV to re-create and animate the past.
It took “Copper” -- in a swirl of both good and bad luck -- years to come together. In 2005, then-AMC executive Christina Wayne watched a documentary and became fascinated with its descriptions of the immigrant world of the Lower East Side. Caleb Carr’s Gilded Age serial-killer novel “The Alienist” deepened her interest. She and writer Will Rokos (“Monster’s Ball”) sketched out a few episodes and began looking for someone to produce the show.
At about the same time, Fontana -- a celebrated writer and producer probably best known for “Oz,” “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and, recently, “Borgia” -- was wandering around Lower Manhattan and musing about what had gone on in various buildings and city blocks. Specifically, the 1880s West Village library he’d bought and converted into a home/office had sent his imagination reeling about that period and the era that came before it.
So when he crossed paths with Wayne and they talked about working together, he told her he was dreaming about a show set in 19th century New York -- a perfect match. They both believed in emphasizing characters and their emotional lives and keeping it from feeling musty like a lot of historical television.
And that’s when things got difficult. “We tried every way we could to get it made,” says Fontana, “and people just kept saying no to us. I don’t know if it was the money.... I stayed up late trying to figure this out. We got close so many times, but for some reason a network would back out and we’d get our hearts broken.”
But finally, Wayne -- now helming Cineflix, a Canadian-based production company -- enlisted BBC America for the project in 2009. All told, says Fontana, it was the longest gestation period he’s ever experienced for any show that’s finally been born. “It was wild,” he says, “but we got here.”
Much of “Copper” is told from the point of view of fictional detective Kevin Corcoran, who moved to the city from Ireland as a baby, fought for the Union in the Civil War, and returned to find his daughter murdered and his wife missing. (One of his key sources and confidantes is a brothel madam, played by Franka Potente, who hears much of the city’s gossip first.)
“You can say he’s been through a huge amount of emotional trauma,” says Weston-Jones, who portrays Corcoran. “But I didn’t want him to seem defeated. He’s hungry, driven and obsessive, actually -- he uses his gut instinct the way a boxer would. And he does some very bad things to people.”
Wayne points out that the show’s cinematography recalls “Breaking Bad,” which she helped oversee, with lots of hand-held cameras and point-of-view shots as Corcoran walks down the city’s mean streets.
But it’s not a police procedural, Fontana says; this is way before DNA testing. “The detective element of the show reveals character rather than procedure. No one will tune us in and say, ‘This is the 1864 version of “CSI”.’ ”
Besides Five Points, the show will travel to an elegant, upscale world along Park Avenue as well as to a rural neighborhood, settled by freed blacks, called Carmansville and which Fontana describes as “open spaces and clear skies.”
The other thing its creators want to make clear is that this is not like Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York,” set in the same time and place. It’s not just because “Copper” is from the point of view of the cops rather than street gangs and Daniel Day Lewis’ mustachioed mob boss. The film was expansive and theatrical, Wayne says, with huge sets on the Cinecitta sound stage, while “Copper” is “raw and visceral -- you are placed right in the action.”
Moreover, it may be that after the success of shows like “Downton Abbey,” “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire,” audiences are no longer scared of work set in the past.
Fontana thinks the series, despite its distance in time, will feel oddly familiar to people. “The technological revolution we’re living through,” he says, “and the massive rearrangement of the way we communicate, is not entirely different from the upheaval of the Civil War,” which saw numerous social and political shift, as well as its own disruptive technologies.
“There are a lot of parallels,” says Wayne. “The country was divided. Our first season takes place during the reelection of Lincoln: It will coincide very nicely with what’s going on in America.”