Wednesday, March 13, 2013

RIPPER STREET: Season One, Less than Ripping

By Laura Akers
While American television, reality train wrecks (pardon me, reality television) aside, is experiencing something of a renaissance, some of the very best shows continue to come from the other side of the pond.

Doctor Who (2005) remains one of the best science fiction shows ever.

Downton Abbey is far more compelling than its classic predecessor Upstairs, Downstairs (1971).

Words seem somehow inadequate to express the gift that is Sherlock (2010). BBC America has even created a great American story and exported it back to us in the form of the dark and vital Copper.

Which is why, when I first hear about BBC America’s Ripper Street, my initial reaction was: “This is gonna be great!”

Set in late Victorian England, just six months after the infamous Ripper murders, the show follows the community the Ripper prowled and the cops who failed to catch him—as well as the horrible aftermath of those crimes. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfayden), a Freethinker, leads a small force of men--including Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) and US Army Surgeon and former Pinkerton detective Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg)—in trying to police a terrified populace plagued by poverty, violence, and despair.

And based on the recent work of the BBC, I could already see the great costumes, realistic sets, strong acting, and stronger storytelling.

Flash forward eight weeks, the season has drawn to a close (although it’s already been renewed for a second season), and I’m left with really mixed feelings about Ripper Street.

The production values are very good, I’ll be the first to admit, although while the costumes are well made, the colors are a little garish (the men have a tendency to plaid—large-pattern plaid—trousers; the women wear dresses of iridescent fuchsia and green). And the sets are, much like those of Copper (set as it is in the American version of Whitechapel), dirty, claustrophobic, and just, well, grim. In a word, perfect.

And the acting has been quite solid. Flynn and Rothenberg take two brutal and morally ambiguous secondary characters and flesh them out into complicated and ultimately sympathetic men, while MyAnna Buring as brothel owner Long Susan and Charlene McKenna as working girl Rose Erskine do an excellent job of making certain their characters avoid the stereotype of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold by keeping you guessing about who and what it is they want out of life.

Rather unfortunately, like the rest of the women in Ripper Street, they simply aren’t given enough to do. In fact, quite often, a dead woman on Jackson’s table in the morgue (the surgeon is, anachronistically, a forensic pathologist) will get more screen time than any live woman on the show. And even when they do get more than a sentence or two of spoken dialogue, it’s invariably delivered in the service of the story of the male characters. Long Susan exists to prod Jackson into action and serves to explain how not only how he came to be in London, but there under such questionable circumstances. Rose’s job is to reveal the heart of Drake. And both Emily Reid (Amanda Hale) and Deborah Goren (Lucy Cohu) exist only to show us the kind of man Edmund Reid really is.

What does it say about a show based on the brutal acts of a man who sought to obliterate women that the living women are less interesting than the dead?

And it’s not like Emily and Deborah help all that much when it comes to Edmund. But it’s difficult to tell whether the Detective Inspector is actually an enigma or just very miscast. One of the things that the show tends to get right is the feel of Whitechapel and the people in it, the violence and soul-killing poverty that made it a place where, even at the height of the Ripper murders, women still continued to take strange men to their homes in the hope of enough coin to buy a meal. All of the characters are marked by this shared environment (they are far from polite, clean, or upstanding citizens) and all of them belong to it, except Edmund (and, as a result, his wife Emily). He simply makes no sense in this milieu.

Part of the problem is that Macfayden, probably best known for his turn in the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice (2005) seems still to be playing Mr. Darcy. That is, he has a sense of propriety that belongs more in the drawing rooms of Jane Austen than the stench of Whitechapel. He delivers his lines in fairly standard RP, inexplicable given those with whom he daily converses. And Darcy’s condemned pride is on full display and with much the same alienating effect. The inescapable question is, how did Mr. Darcy come to be a mid-level policeman in London’s worst neighborhood? Surely there’s a story there, right?

I have held out hope all season. In a show in which we are left the usual number of breadcrumbs leading us back to the various characters’ pasts, it should only be a matter of time before we discover some terrible fall from grace or great sacrifice which has mired the gentlemanly Edmund in the muck of Whitechapel.

Nothing. Not a trace or even sidelong acknowledgement that something’s really odd about him. And with the final episode, my hopes were dashed, as the one great secret about Edmund and Emily came to nothing whatsoever, and the season ended with the narrative equivalent of straightening your tie before going about your business. 

Because Ripper Street’s greatest sin is that it fails where so many other BBC imports succeed so brilliantly: the storytelling. Until the last two episodes, the plots are standard hour-long forensic procedurals, which doesn’t make them inherently bad. After all, that’s basically what Sherlock is as well (although a bit longer). But the difference in the quality of the writing is stark. Under the steady hand of Moffat and Gatiss, we know that everything we see in Sherlock is important—we are trained to look at the text as though everything has meaning, that everything will tie back. Moffat’s plots are well-known to be labyrinthian but they always pay off spectacularly.

But what comes out of Richard Warlow and the other writers on Ripper Street does not. There’s the ring that Jackson is looking for (on and off) the entire season. Turns out to be almost entirely insignificant.

The secret of Long Susan and Jackson’s run from America. Ridiculously cliché.

And the story of Edmund and Emily’s daughter’s fate which is not only unanswered, but the bait-and-switch is so badly handled, the audience no longer cares what really happened to her. And none of this would be so terrible if the primary plots rose even to the level of CSI or NCIS.

But by the end of the season, we’re left feeling that Warlow wasn’t so much running a show as a second-year scriptwriters’ workshop.

Still, I’ll be turning in next season.

Because while the head and heart of the show seems to be missing, there’s still plenty of good work here, and it’s a solid foundation which could be improved upon. Due to the acting chops of most of the cast, I am invested in who the characters are, even if I no longer trust where they are going. And it’s hard to imagine a better visualization of this time and place in history.

And I get that there’s so only so much Moffat to go around. He can’t write everything Britain produces. But he and others have raised the bar so high that we’re no longer satisfied with the kind of pedestrian and uneven work seen on Ripper Street

Luckily (for everyone except writers), writers are much easier to replace than actors. It will be interesting to see if Warlow, whose resume is not all that deep to begin with, can recognize the need to do so.

Because with the right storytellers, Ripper Street has all other ingredients to be a hit worthy of BBC America.

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