Sometimes, it’s a great thing to watch a TV show that’s been stocked with a mostly unknown cast. When you see the characters’ faces for the first time onscreen, you don’t have an instant sense of who they’re likely to be as the action unfolds. You’re not bringing a boatload of preconceptions with you about whether they’ll be good, bad, kind, coarse, or kooky — or playing against type. You’re as pure a viewer as you can be in these days of bottomless overexposure.
That’s one of the many things that make “Copper,” BBC America’s first original scripted series, something special. You enter the world of this transporting show — the dirt streets of 1864 Manhattan — feeling lost among complete strangers. You’re a bit out to sea, which is what the creators and producers, including Tom Fontana (“Oz,” “Homicide”) and Barry Levinson (“Homicide,” “Diner”), are going for. They’re dropping us into a city that is alien and in ruins, despite the fact that it’s New York. A trio of un-uniformed cops chase bank robbers, shoot them, pick their pockets, steal from their loot — then retreat to their girlfriends, prostitutes living above a bar in the squalid Five Points slum. The cops look just like the crooks. It’s all strange and very Wild West.
“Copper,” which premieres on Sunday at 10 p.m., gradually lets you understand that the show’s three central cops, led by Irish immigrant Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), are indeed good guys — or, more accurately, good-ish guys — who kill in the name of law and order. Corcoran, with his noble frown, is the smart one, who served with the Union Army in the Civil War. Like the Civil War veteran in AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” who seeks revenge for the murder of his wife and son, Corcoran is on a mission to learn the truth about the disappearance of his wife and his daughter’s murder. As he fights crime in the anarchic city with fellow detectives Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and Andrew O’Brien (Dylan Taylor), his family quest will form the 10-episode season’s long-term plot arc.
In the meantime, Corcoran finds solace in the arms of the saloon’s madam, Eva, who is played by Franka Potente, the show’s most familiar face to Americans. Potente was the athletic star of “Run Lola Run” in 1998, and she has since appeared in “The Bourne Identity” and “The Bourne Supremacy.” Here she is a businesswoman who is intelligent enough to capture Corcoran’s interest. She and a runaway child, Annie (Kiara Glasco), form a kind of surrogate family for Corcoran, which gives the show the potential for psychological layers. When Corcoran tells Eva, “You’re the only one I want,” you know — even if he doesn’t — that it’s not quite true, that the mystery of his wife is his true obsession.
While “Copper” is not exactly a Civil War drama, it takes place in the shadows of the war. Corcoran fought beside a dissolute Manhattan aristocrat named Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), who is now missing a leg, and their connection becomes important back in New York, as Corcoran, Maguire, and O’Brien work a particularly pernicious murder case.
Corcoran also secretly relies on a doctor who was Morehouse’s valet in the war, a black man named Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) who performs forensic, “CSI”-like examinations on murder victims. Corcoran brings victims’ bodies to Matthew secretly; he knows that no one would believe Matthew’s deductions if they knew they came from a black man. Matthew and his wife live in quiet terror, as her brothers were lynched during the Draft Riots of 1863, a five-day protest against the draft and a violent racial attack. When Corcoran and his men knock on Matthew’s door in the middle of the night with a body to examine, Matthew instinctively pulls out his gun.
The set design of “Copper,” which bears some similarities to the hellish scenario of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” rings of authenticity, as it is filled with rats, mud, and hungry people dozing in dirty barns. It’s all presented in an aged golden hue that recalls photos from old newspaper clippings. Occasionally, the dialogue includes a present-day turn of phrase, or the action seems to flirt with contemporary crime-show clichés — one of the suspects in the premiere, for example, who is a predictable baddie. Also afoot: saloon clichés, notably Eva, who may be the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold.
Those imperfections never jolted me out of the spell “Copper” casts. BBC America chose to launch a move beyond reairing British dramas and into original series by trusting two of the people responsible for one of TV’s best police dramas, “Homicide.” I’m inclined to do the same.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew