Is Jack the Ripper still on the loose in the streets of Whitechapel? That's the premise behind the sensational BBC drama Ripper Street
, a police procedural and forensic investigation serial that's more than a century ahead of its time--if TV and gritty, realistic cop shows had existed in 1889, that is. Matthew Macfadyen is Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, a forward-thinking lawman in charge of H Division in squalid East London, where it has been six months since his department investigated the last murder committed by the notorious serial killer. But since Reid does not know that the last murder was the Ripper's final strike, the city has no reason to believe that he is not still at large. So when a gruesome crime is discovered that bears some of the hallmarks of Jack's M.O., panic grips Whitechapel again, and it is Inspector Reid's job to rule out the Ripper even as he's forced to relive the trauma of his unsolved investigation. This eight-part series was broadcast on BBC America in 2012 to much acclaim for its attention to period detail at the end of the Victorian era as well as for its unflinching exploration of the seedy underbelly of London's most sordid slum. Ripper Street
has been described as a 19th-century Law & Order
, or Criminal Minds
, and it does share the same adherence to the procedural methods of great cop shows. But it is much richer for its use of colorfully idiomatic language, wit, intelligence, and a sensibility that's closer to HBO or a feature film than it is to network TV. Each episode focuses on the thorough investigation of a horrific murder (or murders). There is also an arc that follows an unfolding interconnectedness between characters, as well as the larger issue of whether the Ripper is gone and who he might have been. Assisting Reid in his police work is his loyal, tough-as-nails aide Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), and a shady American surgeon and ex-Pinkerton agent Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). Jackson turns out not to be all he says he is; the same goes for his close associate Long Susan (MyAnna Buring), a mysterious brothel owner who figures prominently in the show's larger thematic development. Reid and Jackson share an uneasy friendship and professional respect built primarily on the inspector's cleverness in police work and the doctor's keen mind for forensic examination.
The show's chapters all turn on some sort of technological advance or striking cultural change to propel a mystery and its solution. The premiere episode, "I Need Light," is structured around a new kind of camera that captures pictures sequentially to present an alternate version of real life. Reid is awed by the device, even as its appearance is the cause of great personal torment for him (the Ripper's potential return) and results in monstrous leaps of human cruelty. The episode also sets the stage for the show's general predilection for lurid motivations, in this case suggesting that the first motion pictures were pornographic snuff films. Other episodes deal with human trafficking, industrial espionage, and the use of biological weapons, and all are infused with highfalutin dialogue that makes their crafty narratives hum with intrigue. Also woven into the background fabric are encroaching sea changes such as the telegraph, the stock ticker, electric lights, and mass transit. The most important nuances, however, are in the way the hard-edged characters spin out their unfolding inner dramas. There may be modern techniques of criminal investigation and the encroachment of radical technologies enlightening Ripper Street's worldview, but it's solid storytelling that gives such a fresh look to the old-fashioned dirty deeds. --Ted Fry