October 22, 2012



Throughout its first season, COPPER has almost never been as vivid as it seemed like it should be.  The show’s premise and auspices were promising:  the lead producers were Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, who apart from their illustrious solo credits, had combined as a team for the seminal cop show Homicide:  Life On the Street, and the setting was New York City in 1864, while the Civil War still raged, with the idea of combining the brutal, violent politics of the age with a period-era detective procedural–an E. L. Doctorow novel with balls.  Yet despite a fair amount of melodramatic plotting, the show–which is BBCAmerica’s first original scripted series, and has just been renewed for Season 2, thanks to BBCA’s tolerance for low ratings–has been somehow bland from the start.

A large part of the problem has been that the characters are unexciting, and the cast has been largely unable to give them more dimension than was on the page.  Our hero, Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), spent most of the season furiously hunting for his missing wife and the killer of his daughter, but while the “This time it’s personal” card is one innumerable thrillers have played over the years, here it felt thin and contrived.  When it turned out, in the last few episodes, that his wife had disappeared because she was the one who had unintentionally killed their daughter, after a liaison with Kevin’s own partner Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) led to a pregnancy and abortion, Maguire’s character had been so little developed that the twist seemed to come out of nowhere.  Wealthy Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith) wavered from seemingly good to seemingly evil on a weekly basis, so the final revelation that she’d been working with Confederate bombers (but she didn’t think they’d hurt anyone!) had little impact.  One-legged Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), dissolute yet good at heart, was a cliche, and it was silly for the writers to think for a moment that we wouldn’t know his industrialist father would turn out to be a villain.  The characters who turned up in the weekly episodic procedural stories were mostly routine and dull.

Anticlimax was also a recurring issue for the show, as it was again in tonight’s season finale, written by co-creator Will Rokos (from a story by Rokos and Fontana), and directed by Ken Girotti.  The show had spent its last several episodes setting up an act of terrorism that the rebels were going to launch on New York with their “greek fire” liquid explosives–and with the help of Morehouse’s father and Elizabeth–amid talk of 10,000 casualties.  In the end, though, all we saw were a couple of fiery hotel rooms before Corky and Maguire stopped the plot dead.  Similarly, a B story in the episode was the difficult pregnancy of the wife of Corky’s black friend Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a doctor in the war who’d amputated Morehouse’s leg and now provides pre-CSI forensic services for Corky, which led to Matthew’s wife Sara (Tessa Thompson) taking some unknown patent medicine… which ended up having no consequences at all.  Corky had his still shaky wife watched over by his own ex-mistress Eva (Franke Potente), a prostitute and madam whose murderousness had been previously established, along with the occasionally sociopathic child Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco)… and they gave her hot tea to drink and made sure she ended the season in good health.  A cameo by John Wilkes Booth came to nothing.  When the show finally decided to go dark in its last minute, it felt more odd than inevitable, like they’d spun a wheel in the writers room, and Corky’s final action for the season was what came up.

Copper has also had a clearly inadequate budget.  Directors were forced to keep the cameras in close and mostly stick to claustrophobic interior scenes because the backlot exteriors looked like exactly what they were, and the occasional CG larger vistas were cheap-looking and unconvincing.  It’s hard not to compare Copper to Hell On Wheels, another Sunday night basic cable show set just a few years later, albeit on the other side of the country, and while Hell has its own problems (like killing off its own best character and fumbling the treatment of others), it’s established a clear and believable point of view around a specific time and setting, and that provides it with a strong base for its storytelling, the kind of base that Copper lacks.

Copper, as noted, will be back next summer, and the show’s creative minds will have several months to rethink what they’ve done and figure out what should happen next.  It remains a series with plenty of potential, but next time around it needs to actually deliver on some of that.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."