If the post-Civil War drama Copper (Sundays, 10 pm, BBC America), about Irish cops navigating every layer of circa 1865 New York society, were a tenth as good as it is ambitious, it would be 2012's best new series. Its pedigree is strong: it's executive produced by Monster's Ball writer Will Rokos, Oz's Tom Fontana, and Barry Levinson, who worked with Fontana on Homicide: Life on the Street and directed some memorable period films (Diner, Avalon, Bugsy, et al). And its scale is — or at least seems to be — gigantic. Much of the show is set in and around Lower Manhattan's Five Points neighborhood, the stomping ground of Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York; it takes its stylistic cues from that picture and from Deadwood, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and other down-and-dirty historical re-creations. It even has its own stylized vernacular. Why, then, is it so tedious?
Tom Weston-Jones stars as Kevin Corcoran, an incorruptible policeman and Civil War veteran wandering Five Points with his one-eyed pal Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), solving crimes while conducting an ongoing, mostly off-the-books investigation into the disappearance of Kevin's wife and the murder of his daughter. The first two of episodes are classic "detective as errant knight" material. Kevin and Francis and their fellow cops try to solve the murder of a child prostitute while protecting her straight-arrow sister from a similarly grim fate. Their investigation takes them up society's ladder. The lower rungs include Eva Heissen (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run), a brothel madam who supplies the cops with information and context and sometimes comforts the grieving Kevin; the prostitute Molly Stuart (Tanya Fischer), a squeeze of Maguire's who is fascinated by Kevin; freed slave, doctor and secret forensic scientist Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) and his anxious, super-protective wife Sara (Veronica Mars's Tess Thompson), and Kevin's nemesis Padraic Byrnes (David Keeley), a corrupt cop who's only loyal to his own appetites. The higher social rungs include Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith), a Fifth Avenue society lady who agitates for social change and helps the less fortunate, and Kevin's old war buddy Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), a raconteur and whoremonger who shares some of Elizabeth's class-traitor impulses.
On paper, this seems a lively gallery of characters turned loose in a fascinating world. So why is Copper so uninteresting? Let's start with tone, which might be the most crucial aspect of TV storytelling. When a show hones a particular vibe and keeps it going — when it tells you, "This is the show's view of life, the universe and everything, now settle in while we go for a ride" — it can make the entirety seem to cohere, even if scenes or whole episodes fall flat. A good show exudes confidence and then proceeds to earn it by rarely stepping wrong. I didn't believe much of what Copper showed me, alas, for several reasons. First, most of the performers speak in a thin, uninflected, distractingly modern-cadence. And when they attempt Irish or English or early-American accents, whether playing against their natural voice or not, I don't believe they're 19th century people, at least not as easily as believed characters in productions that influenced it — ripping yarns with performances that felt real and artificial, recognizable and indescribably alien. Copper is like a bunch of 21st century actors in period dress wandering expensive sets, reeling off exposition and historical footnotes gussied up with the odd verbal curlicue. ("Thoughtful men believe that urban growth can be controlled by scientific method and careful planning, though there are those who hold that the plight of the poor is their own doing," Morehouse says at one point, as if vamping through a test he forgot to study for.)
If the actors were stronger — or, to be fair, if the show had had a better sense of how to tap whatever talents they possess — they might have been able to sell the material. No such luck. Weston-Jones is earnest and and handsome but not magnetic or dark enough to make the hero's righteous misery interesting, and the rest of the cast doesn't fare much better. Only Ato Essandoh's performance rises above the level of a good try. That he happens to play the only character you've never seen before in a drama surely helped, but I credit his aloof, watchful, focused quality. He pulls off that delicate actor's trick of revealing a character's thoughts and feelings to the viewer while plausibly hiding them from other characters. He seems to have thought hard about how an African-American of Freeman's unique experience might react in any situation and found practical ways to translate his theories into performance. Watching him, you never feel that he's a contemporary man playing Civil War dress-up. He doesn't have a trace of 2012 consciousness, or even 1912 consciousness.
If only the whole series followed his lead. As a dramatic time machine, and even as historical soap, Copper is a well-meaning botch. It borrows from distinguished sources but doesn't alchemize them into something striking. Unless you have a jones for historical trivia or like playing spot-the-references, you can take the beat cop's eternal mantra to heart: Move along, folks, there's nothing to see here.