Flipping through the Netflix Instant Watch feeds, I kept coming upon the show Copper. I added it to my queue and if my mind worked like Windows Explorer the file name was \\hotpeople_periodcostumes_possiblydepressing_watchwhiledrunk.mov. Having watched the show, I feel validated about my naming convention, although it is certainly worth discussing in detail.
Copper is an ensemble piece following several interrelated stories in 1860s New York. One group, the Irish, is made up of cops headed by the titular Detective Kevin “Corky” Corcoran, a scrappy looker of a gent (Tom Weston-Jones) and veteran of the still-occurring Civil War. He immigrated as a boy, and spent a difficult childhood in the streets of Five Points. After seeing the way the Irish were treated, he joined the Army to provide for his wife and daughter, who begin the show missing. In the army, he served with Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) under Major Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmidt), who each serve as contact points for the other groups in the show.
Freeman (Essandoh), a trained medical doctor, represents the struggles faced by former and freed slaves in the U.S.. He’s married to the beautiful Sarah (played by Tessa Thompson of Dear White People fame, who I think has a great career ahead of her), who herself is laboring under a major case of PTSD after escaping from the south. Also, her brothers were lynched in a Irish anti-conscription riot and her mother is still enslaved somewhere in the south, working on a plantation. Their story is one of the most compelling, as it shows that Emancipation was not the ‘happily ever after’ history books like to pretend it was.
Although it’s fascinating, their story is also saddled with the burden of having to represent the struggles of All Black People, which makes for very cramped storytelling. Basically, terrible thing after terrible thing happens, and we don’t get to see much joy for them – I think if they had their own show with more room for these stories to develop it would have worked, but there were times when I found myself shouting (at the writers) ‘For heaven’s sake, she just got over her miscarriage and Matthew’s weird uncle putting the moves on her — THEY CAN JUST GO ON A PICNIC THIS WEEK.’
When Major Morehouse was wounded in a battle, Corcoran and Freeman performed emergency amputation on his leg. This act of kindness bought Freeman Morehouse’s eternal friendship, and the wealthy socialite bankrolled Matthew’s medical education. It makes for an interesting set-up and shows how the answer to one problem can sow many others – even though Matthew is a trained MD and knows his business, he constantly faces prejudice and ignorance, having his ability and intelligence called into question by the ignorant populace. The second season provides an interesting twist on this when another Black family doesn’t trust him to treat their daughter and accuses him of siding with White society and betraying his ‘own kind.’
Morehouse is a dilettante, a New York proto-celebrity who hangs around in a silk robe in his father’s mahogany-and-old-leather library and parties at whorehouses all night. He schmoozes with other pillars of industry and mostly rides his father’s coat-tails. Occasionally he hangs out with Corky and the gang and serves as an extra gun as-needed, or gives Matthew money to expand his medical practice or perform research.
The show was attempting to be a kind of Deadwood-lite by showing the ugly side of American history. The problem is that the scope never really matched the showrunners’ vision – In all honesty I found myself detaching as more and more dreadful things happened to these poor people. The lawlessness of New York and lack of social institutions like trash collection, sewage removal, educational opportunities, or medical facilities is keenly felt. The horrific realities of orphans are illustrated by eleven-year-old Annie, a recurrent character who spends a lot of time with Corky after he saves her from prostitution. They meet in the premier episode’s opening when he offers to share his hard-boiled egg with her and she thanks him by offering him sexual favors- which he is horrified by, and naturally rejects. Having been abused by men her whole life, Annie sometimes makes DEEPLY upsetting advances on Corky, who gently rebuffs her. Eventually she has a happy ending, but MAN – watching her get there is WORK.
Which brings me to my next point – although there was a lot to recommend the show, I didn’t find myself enjoying it that much. Matthew and Sara’s relationship and story were bright points except when they was heartrendingly depressing; Corky’s search for his wife was interesting until it became a neverending slog of misery and darkness; Francis Maquire’s character arc showed the most growth of characters, I think, and was played by the charming Kevin Ryan to great effect. Elizabeth Haverford was terrible and I felt bad for Anastasia Griffith, who had to portray a character whose trajectory was basically a series of disasters punctuated by crying. Another bright spot was Franka Potente’s depiction of Eva, the German Madame and owner of the brothel where Corky and the gang hang out, but was also another case of ‘All the bad things happening’ to her.
Copper also suffered from what I think of as ‘Great Man’ Syndrome, a contrivance where everyone continually tries to parse the thinking and motivations of a single central character. That sort of thing breaks narrative because nobody sits around pondering the inherent motivations of someone they’re trying to trick, kill, or seduce. It sometimes works with protagonists and antagonists pondering each other’s motives, but when the speakers and subject are on the ‘same side’ it turns into hero worship and falls apart. You could argue that in a show like Copper there are few clearly defined ‘sides,’ but there was no need for that much speechifying, especially when trying to depict a group of people whose Needs Hierarchy was not that complicated. The writers were exploring the dark landscape where human spiritual nobility and the necessity of survival clash, but they were telling instead of showing.
In all, Copper was a good show. The production design was lavish, and if anything the show suffered from an overabundance of story rather than too little. It has a strong start but the more that happened the less believable it became, and sometimes characters made decisions that honestly didn’t make sense for them. I lost the notes that I made on this point and I would have to do a rewatch in order to be specific, but occasionally I found myself crying out ‘Oh come on!’ when someone did something that seemed more a result of lazy writing than a character flaw.
The cast was one of the show’s strengths. The trio of Corky, Freeman, and Morehouse had chemistry and I wished that the story had focused on them adventuring and solving mysteries a little more. Eva and Annie were an interesting dynamic and there was a wasted opportunity in exploring Eva’s feelings for Annie, and whether she would recommend life as a prostitute or warn Annie away. Weston-Jones carries most scenes he’s in, less because of his good looks than because of his natural charisma.
Although I am sorry to find that the show was cancelled, I hope the whole cast has moved on to something that will get them each the recognition they deserve. I look forward to seeing them elsewhere in the future.
Both seasons of Copper are available on Instant Watch.