Ripper Street, BBC’s winter 8-episode series is a surprisingly good show. Even so, I think the title is awful.
I saw the title pop up on my on-screen cable guide back in January when the show first aired in the U.S. on BBC America. I passed it by very quickly. “How many times can they trot out that old horse about Jack the Ripper – seriously!! ” That was my gut reaction to the show’s title. It didn’t make me want to see or hear anything else about it.
But then I had a couple of days off work and some time to kill. Of course, when I went to spend some of that time chilling in front of the TV, I found there was very little I was truly interested in seeing. So I started surfing the on-demand listings and ran across Ripper Street once again. Since the on-demand episodes were included (i.e. free) in my cable package, I decided to give one a try. After all, I could very easily stop it and choose something else. No skin off my nose. And I’m glad I did give it a try!
I’ll admit, the show’s premise does put it in the same basic time period as the Ripper murders in London’s Whitechapel area (but a few months after). So the title serves to give you an immediate sense of time and place. And the plot does pull in references to Jack the Ripper as various murders occur on the streets of London. [Good grief, I’m making their case for them!] But, in my opinion, what is best about the show is the REST of the story. There are other crimes occurring – like abductions and human trafficking, for instance. And the characters – police detectives, an American medical examiner, a brothel madame and the mistress of an orphanage, etc. – have a real sense of humanity to them. They are gritty but not so horribly mired in the muck of debauchery and vice and dark side of the human soul that one can’t feel empathy for them. Of course, that is partly a result of good acting, but I have to compliment the writers, too.
According to the available material, the series stars Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, Jerome Flynn as Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake and Adam Rothenberg as American Captain Homer Jackson. You have probably seen Matthew Macfayden in one of his many accomplished appearances – on MI5, in Pride & Prejudice, in Little Dorritt, etc. I like him in this series, too. Adam Rothenberg – whose character is a former Pinkerton agent and erstwhile U.S. Army surgeon who serves as the medical examiner for DI Reid – does a fine job as well. But I am very impressed with Jerome Flynn’s work here. I mentioned that the characters are gritty. I think Flynn’s look, his physicality and his character choices make Drake the most interesting piece on the chess board. I enjoy Drake even when his job is just to react to what the rest of the characters are doing.
And let’s not forget the supporting cast – in particular the ladies. There is MyAnna Buring who is good as Long Susan, the madame of the local brothel and love interest for Adam Rothenberg’s character. And there is Lucy Cohu who turns in a very compelling performance as Deborah Goren, mistress of the local orphanage. Goren is a strong, admirable woman ready to take in new charges even when it creates difficulties for her. Yet she is not just some long-suffering martyr. She is a real person with an active set of personal needs and desires. For example, we are made privy to some of Goren’s inner life when she heartily kisses Reid (a married man) back in one episode. While I’m in no way, shape or form endorsing adultery, I appreciate a) Lucy Cohu’s ability to beautifully portray a character that is at times selfless yet has needs and desires of her own and b) the writers’ abilities to put together stories that allow us to learn about their characters beyond the superficial – beyond just their functional role in the machine.
Of course, at it’s heart this is a crime drama, so each episode presents the team with a new one to solve. Some pull us back to the Ripper theme and others are completely separate mysteries that the H Division (homicide) must get to the bottom of.
I’m happy to say that I understand the show has been renewed for a second season of 8 episodes set to begin filming this year and airing in 2014. I feel like the whole cast, crew and creative team have come together in a great way here. I look forward to seeing what more they have in store for us from the streets of London (Whitechapel) in the late 1800’s. I suppose they were Ripper streets, but I STILL don’t like the name!