The basic premise of BBC America’s first original show is a western set in Civil War New York City. The idea of a western set on the east coast (or even specifically in New York) is not new. It was done most prominently in Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, USA/Italy 2002), and it wasn’t unprecedented even then. The western conventions come from being set in the Civil War period in the US and exploring similar themes to traditional westerns, but moving it from the frontier west to the settled east coast provides a new set of visual cues and an ability to explore some themes from new directions. It’s similar to what a couple of my favorite films of all time, Chinatown (Roman Polanski, USA 1974) and Brick (Rian Johnson, USA 205), do with the film noir genre, exploring similar plots and themes to the genre in general but doing so with new visual cues and a fresh eye due to a different setting.
In this show’s case, the change of setting also gives the show the opportunity to put the dramatics of another genre, the police thriller, into play. The show is built around Kevin Corcoran, an immigrant Irish cop who is in nearly every way the archetypical modern police thriller hero: he’s rebellious, violent, impatient, honest, fair, and smart. Even his backstory, a war hero who came home to find his daughter dead and wife disappeared, is really something of a trope of the genre. The one thing that really distinguishes Corcoran from most of these heroes is that he seems to have a self-awareness of his own problematic propensities (impatience and violence) than most of these characters. He may not be original, but he’s an interesting and fun character nonetheless.
And the entire show follows the blueprint of Corcoran: a lot of tropes, but fun tropes, with just enough originality sprinkled in to avoid the doldrums that Game of Thrones fell into for me. Corcoran, like seemingly every detective in the last 50 years, is searching for his wife and/or her killer while he works his cases, but unlike them, he finds her and it turns out he may have been better off not knowing the truth about her fate. The chief of the police force is typically corrupt, but instead of being in the pocket of the criminals, he’s just so obsessed with social standing and not appearing Irish that he’s willing to turn a blind eye to criminal actions by the Protestant upper class. The madam who runs the local brothel is typically a shrewd political creature, but she is also a truly ruthless, vicious conniver who will not let anything stand between her and Corcoran. There is a very young girl who works as a prostitute, but instead of becoming a broken shell of a person she becomes a smart and manipulative girl who responds to Corcoran’s kindnesses by deciding that she wants to be in a relationship with him.
All in all, it makes for a show that feels rather comfortable but has enough surprises that it stays interesting.
The show admittedly takes some time to hit its stride, with the early episodes being heavier on the tropes and lighter on the interesting new elements, but it takes a major step forward midway through the season when Eva Heissen reveals the depth of her depravity and lack of conscience. She cold-bloodedly murders based on untrustworthy information in a truly shocking moment that takes the show to another level and it never drops back to its former level.
Later, when Corcoran surprisingly discovers his wife and learns her fate, the show changes tone rather drastically, strangely taking a breakneck pace while simultaneously taking on a more serious and emotionally deep tone. It’s a welcome change that adds even more to a show that had by that point become quite good already.
The show also does not shy away from exploring some themes that would be too complex for most television shows. We’ve seen exploration of the relationships between immigrants in early American history (again, Gangs of New York serves as a clear example), but most of them have shied away from the reality that much of the divide was often on religious grounds–the Catholic Italians and Irish against the Protestant (and recently Puritan) English (and of course both against the Jewish immigrants from everywhere). While the divide between Catholics and Protestants has always been a bit mystifying to me as an outsider, it was a very important part of the conflicts between different immigrant groups. This show doesn’t hide that aspect, with Corcoran once yelling at the chief that the chief just doesn’t want him to find that a Protestant is guilty of murdering a child in order to have sex with the corpse and the last few episodes filled with religious imagery and exploration as Francis McGuire confronts his own sins and Corcoran, in a murderous rage, seeks him out.
We’ve also seen exploration of racial issues before, but it’s rare to see a black man from the Civil War era depicted as a heroic doctor, someone whose scientific expertise is simply ignored by most but used to great effect by Corcoran, the most honest man in Five Points. We also get to see differences in black attitudes about the racism that surrounds them between the doctor, Matthew Freeman (a bit of an obvious name) and his wife, Sarah. Where she remains fearful of whites and essentially paralyzed by her fears, he looks at the changes that have occurred in recent times and sees people like Corcoran who are willing to accept blacks as equals, and thinks that things will continue to improve. The couple depicts the dichotomy that a black person would have to have felt in this period eloquently and allows the show to examine these feelings instead of portraying either as the entire attitude of all blacks.
Another interesting element of the show is the character of Annie, a victim of child molestation who ended up turning to prostitution to escape her tormentors but is so warped by her life experiences that she can only respond to Corcoran’s kindness in helping her by trying to become his lover, no matter how much he protests. She is heartless and manipulative, even as a child, and it’s easy to see the parallels between her and the local Madam, Eva. It’s an interesting difference from expectation, as she does not become the sad, broken character that we expect of a victim of childhood abuse in most dramas.
Visually, there is nothing much to see about the show. However, very few television shows ever do anything visually interesting (The entire population of shows that are visually interesting is Breaking Bad.), so that is not an important sin. It’s just a virtue that this show unfortunately does not have.
The acting is generally good, led by Tom Weston-Jones’s excellent lead performance. His character borders on over-the-top, but he makes the character believable, which is high praise, and he’s able to portray a variety of emtions perfectly throughout the season. Tessa Thompson and Ato Essandoh deserve particular credit for excellent subtle performances as the black doctor and his bautiful, fearful wife. The only person who is at all a problem is Franka Potente as Eva Heissen, the local madam. She is generally adequate, but she has some weak moments and her odd accent for private moments is rather difficult to place, which makes it less useful and interesting than it should be.
All told, it’s a good first season of the show, though admittedly it seems difficult to imagine its world expanding as well as one would like in future seasons. It’s well worth a watch, and I for one am going to give the second season a shot when it’s available.