TV Review: “Ripper Street” – Lawlessness At Its Best

Written by Jessica Koroll March 12, 2013

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As a BBC production, “Ripper Street” has come out on a high note and lives up to the level of quality set by the company’s long history. While the idea of mixing historical drama and police procedural conventions isn’t new, and it remains pretty clear where the series has been influenced by similar contributions to the genre, “Ripper Street’s” combination of stand out performances and gripping mystery offers viewers crime drama of a slightly higher quality.

Six months after the last Jack the Ripper killing, the Whitechapel authorities in East London remain on the lookout for the notorious murderer and any signs of his whereabouts. During a time when corruption and desperation define the populace, however, it soon becomes the job of Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn), and US Army Surgeon, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) to investigate local murders and illegal dealings in an attempt to clean up the area as they await Jack the Ripper’s next move.

“But you seek order in all things, inspector.”

From the show’s first few minutes and into its opening theme, what’s made immediately apparent is the amount of  attention give to the overall style of the show. The streets of Whitechapel are dark and muted while many of its inhabitants are impoverished and fighting for survival. Corruption and violence are an everyday part of the district’s existence and the cinematography is definitely not skittish about highlighting these features. Yet, the entire thing has a very Guy Richie feel to it, making the main trio’s escapades into the Whitechapel’s seedy underbelly more exciting than disturbing as characters joke while standing over cadavers and blood flies without ever appearing too gory.

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Although the show is called “Ripper Street” the amount of time actually dedicated to Jack the Ripper’s capture and exploits is very minimal. Instead, much of the series focuses on the day to day mysteries that make up Whitechapel. From the murder of a local businessman by a young boy to a string of poisonings that initially are thought to be cholera, the daily crimes that the trio must face are interesting enough in their own right and provide enough opportunity for character development that the lack of focus on Jack himself isn’t too disappointing.

At this point, the Jack the Ripper plot seems to contribute little outside of setting a tone of anxiety over his possible return and in reminding the audience of how dangerous the time and location really are. After the first episode, he is merely mentioned as a source of lingering fear whenever a new body shows up. Even in the season’s final episodes, when it almost seems as though he may make an appearance, it once again proves to only be a false promise as other historical connections shift into the forefront.

“I’m a surgeon, not a strikebreaker.”

With crimes that are so character oriented, Macfadyen, Flynn, and Rothenberg bear the brunt of the pressure in ensuring that the series doesn’t fall into well trodden mediocrity. Thankfully, the three of them succeed not only in developing multifaceted characters that fit right into the time period they’ve been inserted into, but also in convincingly bringing together this unlikely trio. Macfadyen plays the series’ guilt ridden, straight-laced protagonist in such a way that makes it easy to sympathise with his plight and the motivations behind his detective work. While generally more silent and considering in his work, he can dole out a backhand or two as needed.

In contrast, Rothenberg plays the wild, amoral surgeon with a Pinkerton past. His is probably the most interesting member of the cast as he provides the group with humorous quips and an interest in self-preservation that keeps the trio from ever getting too comfortable. The interactions between the main and side characters feel genuine throughout and keep the crimes from ever feeling stale.

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With a second season already green-lit to begin production, hopefully this engaging introduction will soon live up to its name.  For the time being, however, “Ripper Street” offers enough excitement and character driven plots to stand apart and fill out an evening in need of some entertainment.

My Rating: 8/10

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About Jessica Koroll

An English student with a taste for the surreal and love for all things science fiction, her thoughts generally linger on Star Trek, lit theory, and recent tv episodes. I'm also @korolline_

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