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Ripper Street 1.01 "I Need Light" Review

A tv review article by: Laura Akers

 

1.01- "I Need Light"

BBC America's newest Victorian crime thriller Ripper Street has some lofty expectations to surpass, coming as it does on the heels of the smash success Sherlock and the surprise hit Downton Abbey. Set in 1889 in East End’s Whitechapel, the series focuses on some of those most directly affected by Jack the Ripper’s crime spree. It’s been six months after the last Ripper murder; the inhabitants of his old haunt, however, are holding their breath. H Division, tasked with finding the serial killer, has failed. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfayden)—the man who was actually in charge of the early Ripper investigation in real life--and Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) carry the scars of that defeat with them (psychologically and perhaps physically). Jack’s gone, but no one knows where or why. When a woman is suddenly found murdered and mutilated, the police quickly assume he’s returned.

Only Edmund Reid suspects another explanation and calls in US Army Surgeon and former Pinkerton detective Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) to do an autopsy on the body. And this is where Ripper Street begins to go sideways. 

The look of the show owes much to Alien, Deadwood and its close cousin Copper. Sets are rich, dark, and dirty as hell. This is the underbelly of London: claustrophobic and grim, and filled with those whose deaths are noticed only when they make particularly grisly copy for the newspapers. The costuming and makeup primarily reflects this as well, down to the filthy faces of some who wander the streets (although the bordellos seem filled with women a touch too fine and clean. But then, they do service all strata of London, so perhaps this makes sense).

And the acting of the show is almost uniformly good. Both Flynn and Rothenberg put in solid performances, one as the angry brute who differs little from the streets he works and the other as the high-spirited wastrel on the run from something gone horribly wrong back in the States. The minor characters (which include all the women in the premiere—ironic that a show about the brutal murder of women should find its own way to do away with them almost entirely) add flavor, with the police photographer standing out, particularly in the last minutes of the premiere. 

Matthew Macfayden, supposed to be the emotional center of the piece (one guesses), leaves me cold as usual. I want so much to like his work. He’s got that brooding-Brit quality that, properly harnessed, can deliver a great and often-needed gravitas to a role. Unfortunately, this appears simply to be the look of him at rest. Put into action in such a role (as this one undoubtedly is) and he comes off wooden and weirdly unengaged for all the intense dialogue coming from him. Like his turn in the recent Pride & Prejudice adaptation, he largely seems uncomfortable and uninterested when he should display just-hidden depths and pain.

His performance is so out of touch, in fact, that about halfway through this first episode, I began to expect him to whip off his non-existent sunglasses, push his jacket out of the way to put his hands on his hips, and deliver his next line with dramatic weight added to a word that is actually devoid of real importance. In the end, he comes off less as Copper’s Corky and more like Horatio Caine. 

Which may not be all that surprising, considering that, on its most basic level, the premiere of Ripper Street really seems to be a police/forensic procedural set in late 19th century London.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I adore police procedurals and wanted to be a forensic pathologist until I was 14. But with so damned many of them on television right now, the only way to succeed at this game is to do something really interesting not only in terms of setting, but in the delivery of the forensic science. This is one of the reasons that Sherlock works as well as it does. Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the science to the general public, which in turn led to our seeming unending fascination with it. But in breathing new life into his character, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt knew better than to show him practicing run-of-the-mill forensic pathology. Their Sherlock is on the cutting-edge of science and technology, both professionally and personally, and the entire show reflects it. By comparison, Reid’s behavior at the Ripper Street murder scene is something straight out of first-season Law & Order, a show that began its run two decades ago. It is both dated and anachronistic as it seems highly unlikely that such a thorough autopsy could or would have been done for a 19th century prostitute. Hell, that’s rarely done even now.

The fact that it is a procedural, and an unimaginative one at that, creates what would seem like an even worse problem. This show might still work if it had an interesting myth arc. When I first heard about the series, I immediately imagined a complex story about the aftermath of the Ripper killings, and maybe even an interesting idea about where he went and the heroes thwarting his evil-doing over the course of a couple of seasons. Reports of upcoming episodes do not seem to bear out either this or really much more of an overarching storyline than we might see on Criminal Minds or NCIS, both of which tend toward the episodic.

Still, I hold out some small hope for the series. Most shows--even the really good ones--often tend to be crappy by comparison for the first half-season or so.  This seems to be a particular issue for American television.  I’ll be tuning in to the rest of season one of Ripper Street. With any luck, the show has not only stolen its format (and some of its content) from American television but this frustrating tendency as well. It seems odd to take an American concept, set it in a quintessentially British moment in time and space, and then gift it back to us Yanks. But if anyone can pull such a thing off, the BBC’s track record suggests that they are the ones to do it.


 

Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers

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