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Review: BBC America's 'Ripper Street' a fine dose of mystery

Well-written and acted, the Victorian-era crime drama 'Ripper Street' takes us back to the moment when the fascination with serial killers began.

January 19, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Jonathan Barnwell, left, and Adam Rothenberg in a scene from "Ripper Street."
Jonathan Barnwell, left, and Adam Rothenberg in a scene from "Ripper… (Jonathan Hession, BBC America )

"Ripper Street," the Victorian-era police procedural debuting on BBC America on Saturday, opens with chilling promise and on a decidedly modern note.

It's 1889 in London's notorious East End and a man leads a group of middle class English citizens to the sites of the Jack the Ripper killings. Six months since the body of Mary Jane Kelly, the fifth victim, was found, and already murder tourism thrives in Whitechapel.

It is interrupted, in this case, by the discovery of another woman butchered, which leads the members of local H division, including Det. Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), to fear that the Ripper has not died, emigrated or simply gone to ground as so many had hoped. Fending off the voracious press (some things really never change, do they?), Reid resists jumping to such headline-ready conclusions.

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With the reluctant aid of the suspiciously seedy U.S. Army surgeon/former Pinkerton agent/budding forensic examiner Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), Reid quickly concludes that this bloody corpse is the work of another brutal murderer — a revelation oddly presented as a relief — and sets out to bring him to justice.

To do this he and his tough and ready detective sergeant (Jerome Flynn) must delve deep into the dim and slop-strewn East End, with its picaresque warrens of corruption and decay. If this sounds slightly familiar, it most certainly is — not only does "Ripper Street" faithfully follow BBC America's other period procedural "Copper" in form and function, it borrows scenes, music and even credit imagery so freely from Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" series that you expect Robert Downey Jr., or at least Stephen Fry, to make a cameo.

This doesn't make "Ripper Street" a bad show, or even an overly derivative one. On the contrary, it is well-written and certainly well-acted, with plot and psychological twists as numerous and tantalizing as the streets on which they occur.

Macfadyen, known to BBC fans for "Spooks" and to film audiences as Keira Knightley's Mr. Darcy, instantly creates the sort of brilliant but haunted detective that drives most modern procedurals, and creator Richard Warlow mines place and period for all their era-turning worth.

In the premiere, the inevitably rhapsodized emergence of film is given a refreshingly disturbing back story in pornography, another nod to modern life in which that other new technology — the Internet — remains over-populated with the porn sites that helped establish it as a cultural force.

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Beyond providing audiences the opportunity to consume a little history with their murder mystery, "Ripper Street" is a fortuitously timed origins story. Debuting days before Fox's much more heavily touted "The Following," "Ripper Street" may not draw the audience or the scrutiny of the Kevin Bacon vehicle, but it is most certainly a companion piece.

As that 1889 murder tour makes clear, this is where it all started, the fascination with serial killers, the need to make them more than a sum of their horrible actions. Others had murdered before Jack, but none captured the public's attention so intensely and with such longevity.

"Ripper Street" is every bit as violent and, at times, stomach-churning as "The Following," Reid every bit as damaged and obsessed as Bacon's FBI agent. It's just the hats and the walking sticks and the bodices (this being a period piece, prostitutes abound) make the crimes more "artistic" than "disturbing."

Warlow does not shy away from the general brutality of the times; indeed he wallows in it to the extent that every alley, every dwelling looks like a potential crime scene. But somehow "Ripper Street" seems less menacing than "The Following," steeped in sepia rather than blood.

Which is odd considering it deals with a much more dangerous and pervasive force: the rise of both the first rock-star murderer and, perhaps not coincidentally, the modern age.

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'Ripper Street'

Where: BBC America

When: 6 and p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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