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Review: BBC America’s ‘Copper’ a refreshing bit of 1860s grit

Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), left, and Detective Francis Magurie (Kevin Ryan) in "Cooper."
(George Kraychyk, BBC America / Cineflix)

“Copper,” which premieres Sunday night, is the first original drama from BBC America, a network that sometimes seems to be made entirely of “Top Gear” reruns. It is rather good.

Co-created by Tom Fontana and executive produced by Barry Levinson, who earlier laid “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz” at our feet, with co-creator Will Rokos (who co-wrote “Monster’s Ball”), it is a sort of Eastern western, set around the unruly, pestilent Five Points area of New York City in 1864 — the place and the time, or just after it, of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” If it is more morally straightforward than that film or than “Homicide” or “Oz” or the more artistic dramas that define modern cable television — the hero is unequivocally a good guy, his adversaries are unmistakably evil — I hereby declare that to be refreshing.

Irish American police detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) is a straight arrow in a crooked world and plagued by a mystery of his own: the disappearance of his wife and the murder of his daughter while he was away doing brave things in the still-ongoing Civil War. The loss has not exactly been balanced by the acquisition of two new wartime friends, Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), a Fifth Avenue rich kid who left a leg behind, and Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African American doctor who has become Corcoran’s uncredited forensic pathologist.

The cast is talented and not particularly familiar. There are a couple of weak links who can’t quite translate the cadences of the studiously antiqued dialogue into natural-sounding speech, but most make pleasant company, even in moments of suspense and tension, and those who aren’t as good to listen to are still nice to look at.

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Franka Potente, who starred in “Run Lola Run” and a couple of “Bourne” movies and plays the Good Madam here (there is a Bad Madam uptown), is the biggest name, though some will recognize Schmid from"Being Human"and Tessa Thompson, as Matthew Freeman’s wife, Sara — still recovering from her brothers’ lynching in the Draft Riots — from “Veronica Mars.”

As a rudderless child of privilege who wants to impress or possibly to undermine his unsavory developer father or possibly even to do the first by accomplishing the second, Schmid’s Morehouse (both damaged and enlightened by the war) is potentially the most fluid and interesting character here, though Corcoran, with his leading-man looks, quiet resolve, wounded heart and sexy righteous ways, is still its most attractive: All the ladies love him, while Morehouse praises his “inherent nobility.”

Accompanying Corcoran are a pair of detective sidekicks, one a rogue-ish romantic (Kevin Ryan), the other a big lug (Dylan Taylor). If by modern standards of professional police work they are somewhat backward — they shoot first, interrogate with punches, skim a little off the top from recovered loot — they are made sympathetically modern in other ways: free of the racial, religious and gender prejudices many if not most of their peers would have regarded as scientific fact, relatively sober, good with children. (And so it is with Potente’s warm-hearted proto-feminist Madam. And as in most such screen fictions, all the whores are hotties.)

Something similar is going on with the re-created city itself: For all its down-market detailing, the Five Points of “Copper” looks too clean, less squalid than run-down, a ramshackle backdrop for lusty scenes of urban peasant life — child prostitution story line notwithstanding. It is an impressive piece of work, nevertheless, a warren of streets and alleys re-created on a Canadian soundstage by production designer John Blackie (“Hell on Wheels”). Cinematographer Paul Sarossy (Atom Egoyan’s go-to-guy), tending toward monochrome, works tight to make less look like more, though here and there it does look like a little less.

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Research has been done. There are times when the dialogue becomes a kind of dramatic Cliff’s Notes: “Thoughtful men believe that urban growth can be controlled by scientific method and careful planning,” Morehouse tells a friend, “though there are those who hold that the plight of the poor is their own doing.” And you will learn that the age of consent in that place and time was 10. But “Copper” has come to entertain, not to educate, and it discharges that duty well.

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‘Copper’

Where: BBC America

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When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com


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