If you think America is strange, violent and complex now, and you wish for a simpler, kinder time way back when, then BBC America's "Copper" may mess with your nostalgic yearnings. It turns out the past is just as dark, twisted and ultimately hopeful as today (after all, we survived it to get here).
Premiering Sunday at 10 p.m., the channel's first original scripted series -- set for an initial run of 10 episodes -- is the creation of Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "Oz") and Will Rokos ("Monster's Ball," "Southland"), and executive-produced by Barry Levinson ("Good Morning, Vietnam").
British actor Tom Weston-Jones stars as Irish immigrant Kevin Corcoran, a detective with New York's emerging police department in 1864.
He has returned from fighting in the Civil War to find a rapidly growing but often ramshackle metropolis that is sharply split among the elegant residences of Fifth Avenue, the rough-and-tumble immigrant neighborhood of Five Points (the seedy underbelly of which often attracts some of the city's wealthier citizens in search of particular pleasures) and the emerging African-American community in northern Manhattan. He also discovers that his daughter has been murdered, and his wife is missing.
A former boxer, Corcoran is bound by a strange battlefield secret to two of his wartime companions, Manhattan aristocrat Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) and African-American Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), to whom Corcoran turns for forensic crime analysis.
Partnered with Corcoran are his pal, Irish-born Det. Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), and Det. Andrew O'Brien (Dylan Taylor). Also in the cast are Anastasia Griffith, Franka Potente, Kiara Glasco, Tanya Fischer and Tessa Thompson.
A show with its moments
"There will be moments of great passion," Fontana says, "great romance, great adventure and great action. There'll also be quiet moments, intimate moments, sad moments, funny, stupid little moments. In other words, you're going to be following the life of a very complex character as he struggles to find happiness, peace within himself and peace within his community.
"There was a lot of turmoil and conflict during this time in New York and America in general. Societies were being ripped apart and re-examined -- in terms of children, parents' responsibility to children, child labor and even a child's ability to go out and play. Play was unheard of at this time. So life is swirling around Kevin Corcoran, and we follow him as he tries to make sense of the chaos and correct the things he can -- that's heroic in my mind."
All of this is entirely new to Weston-Jones, who was born in Burton upon Trent, England; grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and graduated from the University of London with a degree in drama and theater.
Sitting at breakfast at a secluded Los Angeles hotel restaurant, Weston-Jones orders sparingly, aiming to lose a few pounds for a possible new role. This is just the opposite of his preparation for "Copper."
"I wanted to gain size," he says, "so I started eating everything and working out a lot -- which I love. I love food so much, if I had the opportunity, I would be massive. I can eat all day.
"I think I'm in between big and little at 6 feet. I wanted, with the size thing, and other people did as well, I wanted to put on quite a bit of fat as well whilst I was doing it, because the gym had not yet been invented.
"I wanted to look a little bit like a Neanderthal, in the sense that he was just quite lumbering, naturally big -- and the beer had affected him. He used to be a boxer, but he's not anymore. So I wanted people to see that he used to be very capable and able, and he still is, but not as much as he was before."
(Incidentally, he didn't get the part and immediately went for a hamburger.)
It won't be predictable
Weston-Jones also gets the sense that the story lines of "Copper" may not be predictable.
"You don't get the sense that everybody's got this goal," he says, "that everyone's got this overall thing that they want and need. They're just trying to get on with life. So anything that changes, they just go this way and that way, and it changes every so often. They're written like real people, I think."
Or as Fontana explains, "We deal with big, big social issues like immigration, racism, the distribution of wealth -- the '1 percenters' vs. '99 percenters.' We also deal with more personal issues -- falling in love, falling out of love, death, birth and people living a very basic daily life where they're trying to do what's best for their families and be true to themselves. Those things never change."