J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ripper Street: the New Watch on Whitechapel


It is the precinct with the worst cold case ever.  While they never did crack the Jack the Ripper case, the new guard carries forth.  Six months later, every new murder raises the same question: is he back?  Despite the baggage of the recent past, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid will pursue his investigations as best he can in Ripper Street (promo here), which premieres on BBC America this Saturday.

Though assigned to the case, Reid did not lead the original Ripper inquiry.  That is why he is still on the job.  His former superior, Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline, “retired” for obvious reasons, but he still follows events in Whitechapel closely.  In the series opening I Need Light, a woman is discovered in the murdered in a similarly gruesome fashion.  Not surprisingly, Abberline and the tabloid press jump to the same conclusion.  Reid will keep a lid on them temporarily, but he will need the extracurricular help of disgraced former Pinkerton and U.S. Army doctor Captain Homer Jackson.  Of Course, Jackson is more interested in his own dissolute pursuits and mysterious schemes, both of which involve Tenter Street “proprietress” Susan Long.  Nonetheless, the expat has reasons to stay on the copper’s good side.

Initially, Ripper Street is more about the long shadow cast by the notorious serial killer than the Ripper himself.  In fact, Ripper lore never really factors into the second episode, Under My Protection.  Cranking up the Dickensian vibe, Reid protects a street delinquent convicted of murder from a vigilante mob and the Fagin-on-steroids running his gang of juvenile cutthroats.

Given Reid’s lack of concern for cautions and solicitors, as well as his enthusiasm for “modern” pathology, Ripper Street could clearly be considered the British equivalent of Copper.  It is a sturdy formula, even if regular BBC America viewers will be quite familiar with its obvious influences.  Each episode (so far) also seems to highlight an unsavory aspect of Victorian society, such as pornography and anti-Semitism.

Best known for MI-5 (a.k.a. Spooks) Matthew Macfadyen is pretty solid as Reid.  Adam Rothenberg’s Jackson has the look and bearing of a riverboat gambler, which is more right than wrong.  While we do not see very much of her until the third act of the second episode, MyAnna Buring is clearly all kinds of danger in the femme fatale role.  Yet, Jerome Flynn might be the class of the ensemble as Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake, whom we meet whilst undercover as a bare knuckle brawler.

The jury is still out on Ripper Street, especially since it is still in the midst of its initial British run.  Based on the first two episodes, it clearly promises some historical color, a bit of lurid scandal, and a fair smattering of beat-downs in each outing.  That is certainly a good start, but the crime stories are rather standard issue thus far.  A safe bet for British mystery fans (but not yet appointment television), Ripper Street has its U.S. debut this Saturday (1/19) on BBC America.

(Photo: © Tiger Aspect/Jonathan Hession)

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