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Television Review

‘Ripper Street’: a gripping Victorian crime drama

Top: Matthew Macfadyen stars as Inspector Edmund Reid.

Jonathan Hession/Tiger Aspect

Matthew Macfadyen stars as Inspector Edmund Reid.

What we need is another crime drama.

Yes, kidding. Our TV schedules are lousy with cops out to catch murderers while trying to protect their souls from numbing out. We’ve got travelogue crime dramas (“Hawaii Five-0”), romantic crime dramas (“Bones”), gangster crime dramas (“Vegas”), family crime dramas (“Blue Bloods”), fiber crime dramas (the “CSI” shows), and charming crime dramas (“The Mentalist”), also known as charmas. “Castle” is also a charma. We’ve got Sherlock Holmes (“Elementary”), and on Monday, we’ll have a serial killer obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe (Kevin Bacon’s “The Following”). We clearly have all the blood-spattered, DNA-stained, fingerprint-strewn bases covered.

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Or not. BBC America’s new crime series, “Ripper Street,” which premieres on Saturday night at 9, is a pleasant surprise. Well, not exactly pleasant; it’s about the awful murders in the East End of London in 1889, not long after Jack the Ripper’s siege. It’s as dark and violent as you can get on TV without being on pay cable. But the series is gripping, nicely styled, and smartly written, with a solid leading performance by Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Edmund Reid, the head of H Division. Set in the dirty, seedy, and anarchic streets of Victorian England, it’s distinctive and unlike most of what’s out there already.

It’s important to know that, despite the title, “Ripper Street” isn’t yet another look at Jack the Ripper so much as it’s about the shadow of Jack the Ripper, and the hysteria that lingered in the killer’s aftermath. It’s about the cultishness that surrounds famous murderers — the series begins amid a Jack the Ripper tour — and how that can plague working detectives. Reid is a pragmatic guy, and when a prostitute is found murdered on the street in the premiere, he refuses to assume that Jack the Ripper has struck again. But the public and the media are convinced it was the Ripper; they want it to be the Ripper; and they bring a lot of pressure down on him to say it was the Ripper. But he doesn’t want to “miss the truth of it,” he says angrily.

The evidence leads Reid and his two right-hand men, Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) and the American Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), into a very sordid world involving pornography of the worst kind. And Reid is all about evidence. He is burnt out from having failed to catch Jack the Ripper, and he is turning his passions to the growing art of forensics and technological advancements. He lives on the cusp of a new era of police investigation, and he knows it. Jackson — who likes to visit the local brothel — was an army surgeon, and Reid relies on him to perform autopsies that will provide important factual information. Drake is Reid’s muscle, a guy who knows how to use his fists. The three of them banter as they solve, but with none of the cuteness of their American counterparts.

Reid has a seriously burned shoulder, and a mystery connected to it in his past that will surely unfold across the season. He is in a fraught marriage whose origins will also emerge. Macfadyen projects a strong moral presence, but he also adds layers of flawed humanness on top of it. The actor, who starred in “Pride & Prejudice” in 2005 and “Little Dorrit” in 2008, tempers his righteousness with doubt and a pleasingly sad-sack expression. I am genuinely curious about Reid’s back story.

I have to admit that I’m slightly wary of recommending “Ripper Street,” because I got burned by a similar BBC America series not long ago. The network brought us “Copper,” which started off with some promise but quickly deteriorated into amateur hour. But I feel more confident about this BBC production, which is, as they say, bloody good.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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