Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ripped to Shreds

The end of the third series (British television uses "series" where American television uses "season") of the BBC show Ripper Street left former Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) living peacefully outside of London with his recently rediscovered long-lost daughter Mathilda (Anna Burnett). Amazon had arranged to shoot and air a third series after the disastrous second outing on BBC had more or less killed the show.

Unable to leave well enough alone, Amazon decided to produce a fourth and fifth series that brought Reid and his daughter back to Whitechapel in London and Reid back to the police force. He now serves as an inspector under his former assistant, Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn), who took his place as chief inspector and who lives with his wife, former prostitute Rose Erskine Drake (Charlene McKenna). The American Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) is around as well, continuing to work as a pathologist for the police and trying to find a way to save his wife, Susan Hart (MyAnna Buring), following the exposure of her role in the disaster that overshadowed much of Series Three.

Reid at first pretends as if he is back because he wants to work again, but it becomes clear he has another agenda. Jackson's quest to save Susan from hanging appears on the surface to be purely legal, but it has another layer as well. And some vicious, almost bestial murders plaguing Whitechapel bring back memories of the Ripper case from eight years earlier. Naturally all of these threads will intersect, bringing tragedy to close out Series Four and driving the action of Series Five.

If Series Two wrecked the show and Series Three offered a nice, tidy repair job that left viewers feeling a little better about the whole thing, the last two sets of episodes destroy most of that goodwill. They stem from a narratively ridiculous comeuppance involving a tertiary character towards the end of the third season and the return of one of the second season's biggest liabilities, Chief Inspector Jedediah Shine. Although the jumbled arc of Series Two was supposed to make Shine a major antagonist for Reid, it never did so and there's no reason for him to be exhumed for this story.

There are some bright moments. The budding romance between Sgt. Samuel Drummond (Matthew Lewis) and Reid's daughter Mathilda is sweet and often amusing, as Macfadyen goes into full "dad mode" glower at Drummond every time he sees him at the station. The writers manage to capture the elaborate speech rhythms of the late 19th century and Macfadyen continues to demonstrate his mastery of it.

But most of the rest stinks. Especially disappointing is the way that Charlotte McKenna is called on to use her performance to undo everything that the previous episodes had done with Rose's character, building a breakdown and collapse that have absolutely no narrative foundation. The Whitechapel Golem storyline is ridiculous and also lacks a full foundation, offering more holes than plot.

This space's earlier judgment was that Series One was all the Ripper Street anyone really needed, but that if for some reason a viewer took in Two, then they should by all means have a go at Three in order to wash out the bad taste. The problem with Four and Five is that they've tapped their narrative flow from the dumbest part of Three and they never rise above their origins. The old saying is that if something's not broken, don't try to fix it. On the other hand, if your plan for fixing something that actually is broken winds up making things worse, then that's also a reason to stop. Which is what should have happened with Ripper Street once Edmund Reid came back from his time at the sea.

No comments: