The setting of the grimy, gray world of 1889 London, patrolled by a brilliant detective may seem familiar, but BBC America’s new series Ripper Street manages to give fresh life to an old tale. Ripper Street picks up six months after the last (canonical) Jack the Ripper killing, and while the first episode does lean heavily upon the hysteria of the famed murders, it is luckily not the show’s only reason for existing.
Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew MacFadyen, playing the real-life detective who was brought in to help the seemingly incompetent police division) is in the tough position of investigating crimes in London’s Whitechapel district (perhaps more familiar to modern audiences as the setting of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film). Whitechapel is a small neighborhood with an incredibly large and impoverished population, and plenty of seedy characters for Reid to go up against. Hit the jump for more on Ripper Street, as well as how the show deals with the infamous killer, and more.
Aiding Reid is his right-hand man, the loyal and soft-spoken (but tough) Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn, seen most recently as the character Bronn in Game of Thrones), and an American surgeon and former Pinkerton detective Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). The trio make for an easy gang to root for, each bringing something distinctive to the table. As for the subject of the series, Jack the Ripper is an easy excuse for a stylish (and gruesome) procedural, but the show actually benefits from leaving the focus of the Ripper behind by the second episode.
Amidst the cold and frightening landscape are hints of burgeoning modernity, too — investigators of the Sherlock Holmes-sort were not yet in vogue, and Reid’s methods are largely mistrusted or misunderstood. Jackson, too, is a new kind of addition to the police department — a early sort of medical examiner and self-taught forensics expert, and comes with (like all good characters) a murky and slowly-revealed past. Additionally, in the premiere episode, the magic “moving picture” of a horse in motion, created by Eadweard Muybridge, plays a surprising role in the investigative proceedings. Such brushes with history can feel precious at times, but the way they are twisted makes up for what can feel like overly convenient plotting.
Though much of the setup feels well-traversed in film and television and novels, Ripper Street is well-written and well-acted enough to make itself distinct from the pack. Unlike Copper, another BBC America series that follows a brilliant mind fighting for good in a city’s underbelly in a similar time period (or even AMC’s Hell on Wheels, also in a similar era), Ripper Street portrays its drama and gore in less insistently provocative ways. There are whores, there is murder, there are drugs and there is early pornography, but there’s always a glimmer of hope in the end, something that’s not necessarily typical of British drama, but that is well appreciated here.
Speaking of whores (like in so many series that take place in the late Victorian era), they are a-plenty, and they play central roles. There has been plenty of negative feminist commentary about Ripper Street, that the women portrayed are either pious or whores, with little in between. I think that the lack of dimension in their livelihoods, which isn’t unusual for the time period, is undone somewhat by the hint at, perhaps, some actual personality. Mind you, it’s nascent, and the men are absolutely far more absorbingly written than the females of the show. Still, there is hope that one or two might actually turn into actual characters at some point.
As for our mysterious friend Jack (surname Ripper), the show’s creators have said that they don’t plan to mess around with the “canonical five” (the five women who are considered to have all been killed by one person and not copycats or impersonaters) or proverbially dig up any bodies to change anything about the story we know to be true. And while the identity of the killer may be lost to history, at least the colorful Ripper Street can offer us some other weekly resolutions, which so far seem worth tuning in for.
Ripper Street premieres Saturday January 19th at 9 p.m. on BBC America