Sunday, February 15, 2015

After Jack...

We know Jack the Ripper as a figure of history, and often seem to see him in isolation from the environment where he worked -- the cruel streets of the Whitechapel district in East London. But crime went on in Whitechapel before the Ripper killed (probably) five prostitutes in 1888, and it continued after he seemed to have vanished.

Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, aided by Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake and the American surgeon Capt. Homer Jackson, pursues these criminals in the BBC drama Ripper Street, which originally aired on that network in 2012 and 2013, and then streaming a third "series," as the English term what we call "seasons," on Amazon.

I'll do my best not to be spoilery, but I may tread past what you like to know about your entertainment before you catch it. Fair warning!

Matthew Mcfadyen, a veteran English actor probably best known as the best things about the big-time duds Robin Hood in 2010 and The Three Musketeers in 2011, plays Reid, who was an actual person in charge of the Whitechapel district of the London Metropolitan Police. The showmakers tinker with his history somewhat, mostly in regards to his family situation. Reid's reliable right-hand man is Bennett Drake, a former British Army soldier who came from hard beginnings and knows Whitechapel's criminal element well based on his own similar past experiences. Jerome Flynn, known to many American viewers as Bronn on HBO's Game of Thrones, plays Drake. American actor Adam Rothenberg plays the surgeon Jackson, whose medical and scientific expertise help Reid solve crimes that previously might have remained mysteries. But Jackson has a secret of his own, and it links him to brothel owner "Long" Susan Hart, played by MyAnna Buring. Charlene McKenna as Rose Erskine, one of Long Susan's prostitutes, and Amanda Hale as Edmund's wife Emily Reid round out the main cast for the eight episodes of series one.

Six months after the most recent Ripper murder, the officers and detectives of H Division have little respect from the people of Whitechapel -- they failed to find the killer and seem to be able to do little to stem the other crime of their district. Reid, whose methodical and meticulous observations of crime scenes often lead him to clues others miss, works the streets of his area with that failure -- and perhaps another one, more personal -- hanging over his head. It keeps him virtually separated from his wife, Emily, who has thrown her time into church work that Reid neither understands or condones. Drake's own haints are memories of bloody times in service of Her Majesty and worries he may be too damaged to live the life he wants. And the libertine Jackson seems clearly to use his quest for earthly satiation not as a balm for weariness, but as a hideout from heavy burdens.

The show's first series moved in fits and starts before hitting stride a couple of episodes in. Mcfadyen, Hale, Flynn and later McKenna quickly demonstrated their skills by creating characters who were interesting and about whom viewers could care. Rothenberg and Buring could keep up, but they were clearly the weak links in the cast and episodes that hinged on them were not that series' strong points. Ripper Street averaged about 6.75 million viewers in its first series and earned a renewal.

Which wound up being a disaster, as the second series abandoned the characterizations which had connected with audiences in favor of serving up a parable-of-the-week on how unenlightened and backward those Victorians were and an overarching storyline that faded from existence after the second episode and only came back in the two-part finale. The soapy elements that were the major wrinkles in series one were doubled over. Hale, in fact, looked at what the season was supposed to have in store for Emily Reid and said, "No thanks." Showrunners decided to write her absence into the storyline instead of recasting the role, and that was also the wrong decision. The subplot with Jackson and Long Susan never convinces, which may be something unavoidable in a run limited to eight episodes. But it also falls on the lesser skills of Rothenberg and Buring. The cast all tried to sell the weak product but couldn't; Ripper Street's series 2 debut was watched by 6.45 million people but later episodes never broke 6 million (and the second half of the series never broke 5 million). The low point was the first half of the series finale, which barely topped 4 million viewers -- probably because it followed the worst episode of the show, "A Stronger Loving World." That outing was filled with mystical mush spouted by a character never met before that time that no one cared about and may have been the final blow. A tepid rebound for the finale couldn't paper over how the show had lost almost a third of its first series viewers, and BBC canceled it.

But wait! Amazon made a deal to produce a third series, which aired on its UK site in the fall of 2014. It's supposed to be on sale on DVD sometime this year, but if you hunt around for it you can purchase it legally. And of course you can find it illegally but you shouldn't. In either event, it picks up about three years after the end of series two and finds our protagonists separated and sundered. But as Drake returns with an offer of being put in charge of H Division, he finds himself enmeshed in a horrible train collision that kills more than 50 Whitechapel residents. He joins Reid, who has retreated even more into his work, in trying to determine what brought about a robbery that might have played a role in the crash and who was behind it. They enlist the help of Jackson, who has been even more estranged from Reid after a falling-out between them. Long Susan, going now by her chosen name Susan Hart, has become a power player in the area as well, using her newfound wealth to try to better living conditions and such for the people of East London. An unexpected recovery brings both hope and horror to Reid, however, and will put his life at risk due to an equally unexpected betrayal.

Series three starts out promisingly, but about halfway in adopts series two's worst habits of preachiness and silly soap-operatic arias. It relies far too heavily on Buring, who is not at all a bad actress but nowhere near good enough to carry the load the storyline gives her. The seeming left turn in the middle of the main storyline rings false and the showrunners can't pull the trigger of allowing the Big Bad of the series to really be evil -- the finale closes with a comeuppance given to someone whose minor role in the series to date doesn't warrant it. It hangs the Drake-Rose retread with one or two too-many characters in order to stir interest but never really does anything with them. Other than the first handful of episodes, no. 6, "The Incontrovertible Truth," is the standout. Its twisty psychological storyline, emphasis on detective skills and odd bits of humor offer a good picture of what Ripper Street might have been without the mess of series two irreversibly crippling it.

The suggestion from here is to watch series one and leave the other two to the completists. But if for some reason you do watch series two, then by all means track down three in order to wash the taste out of your brain. A fourth series seems unlikely, but at least three puts most of the characters in a well-deserved conclusion that rings more true to who they are. There's an exception, but there's no way to get into that without ruining the whole thing.

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