Not content to just rebroadcast programming from the UK, BBC America has entered the arena of original scripted programming with this new series. They made a shrewd move by partnering with established and well-respected TV creators including Tom Fontana and exec producer Barry Levinson of Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz fame, along with co-creator Will Rokos (Monster’s Ball, Southland). Those creators came up with a sound concept, developing a gritty crime show in 19th century New York City. Homicide: The Civil War Years? Yes please! So far so good, but then we come to casting.
The series hinges on the lead character, Detective Kevin Corcoran, with all other ancillary characters just circling his orbit. Their pick: Tom Weston-Jones, a virtual unknown on both sides of the Atlantic with basically just one recent season of MI-5 under his belt prior to this. That’s not to say he’s bad, as he mostly proves to be up to the task of carrying the show, but us Yanks expect some star power to get us hooked on a new series. The only barely recognizable name in the cast is Franka Potente of the Bourne films and Run Lola Run, but her presence is hardly felt in a surprisingly small role. Aside from them, we’re left with a literal who’s who of unknowns (seriously, who are these people?). I suppose that helps us accept them as 19th century folk since we’re not used to seeing them in other modern roles, but it doesn’t offer much to entice viewership.
Even with a no-name cast, the show could still thrive with some sparkling scripts. Unfortunately, the writing is the biggest disappointment of the whole endeavor. The writers seem incapable of generating any narrative momentum, hopping from one ill-conceived subplot thread to the next with precious little payoff. By the end of the 10-episode run, I was ready to shoot up along with Corcoran to block out the pain of the meandering stories.
There’s no major villain or season-unifying arc that one might expect of a tightly serialized story, and yet on the opposite side of the plot spectrum there’s generally no crime-of-the-week procedural approach. Instead, we spend a couple of distasteful episodes following Corcoran’s efforts to save a very young girl from prostitution and fight off her resulting affections, meet a country doctor and a rich businessman who were apparently buddies with Corcoran during their Civil War soldiering days and waste time on their inconsequential side stories, discover a fiendish plot to burn down the city late in the season, and solve the mystery of Corcoran’s missing wife. Watching the show is akin to wandering down a dusty path only to find it eventually vanish, backing up and stumbling across another, and repeating the process ad infinitum. The only joy I got out of the writing was my gleeful realization that Fontana slipped in a Homicide reference in his episode 8 script, having an apparent voter fraud organizer putting a wig on one of his pawns and instructing him to go vote again using the name Tim Bayliss.
The show has high-quality production values, with great photography and suitably grimy sets and costumes. As such, the Blu-ray hi-def boost is worthwhile if you’re intent on watching the show. There’s no evidence of film grain or artifacting, even in the frequent murkily-lit scenes. Sound is adequately expansive and conveys the cacophony of the New York streets. Bonus features are fairly routine but robust, including deleted scenes, a making of documentary, character video profiles, and commentary on select episodes. The Blu-ray set also includes an Ultraviolet digital download code.
BBC America seems to have set a new record with release turnaround on the series, offering the set starting today, just over one week after its broadcast conclusion. With so many other broadcast series competing for attention on incredibly crowded Sunday nights, it’s great to have the option to catch up any time now if so inclined rather than having to wait until near the debut of the recently announced season two next summer. I don’t recommend exercising that option, but applaud the speedy release decision.