Three weeks in and it can now be said without equivocation: Ripper Street is a ripping good yarn. BBC’s period drama, set in London’s Whitechapel district in the weeks and months following Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror, was picked up for a second season just days ago. The second season will air in 2014.
Here at home, Ripper Street has toiled in relative obscurity Saturday nights on Space, which is an odd place for it. It would be as if Murdoch Mysteries aired on the Syfy channel in the U.S.
Ripper Street has about as much to do with science fiction as History TV’s Cajun Pawn Stars has to do with history. A more logical pairing would have been with Copper, the made-in-Toronto period drama, which airs on Showcase.
No matter. If you’re reading this, now you know where to find it.
And here’s what you’ve missed so far. Sensible, pragmatic Det. Insp. Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) runs East London’s H Division, a mismatched — and often overmatched — squad of detectives who serve and protect a neighbourhood overrun with crime, pestilence and poverty.
Reid’s partners in crime-solving include a seedy American sidekick (Adam Rothenberg), a former Pinkerton agent who’s moved across the pond, presumably to hide from something in his past.
The debut episode dealt with violent pornography during the early days of film, mere days after the cine-camera has been invented — not just pornography, either, as one U.K. critic noted, but snuff films.
Last week’s episode dealt with extortion and stared unflinching at anti-Semiticism, neighbourhood vigilantism and child neglect.
Tonight’s episode revolves around a cholera outbreak and the widespread panic caused when the disease spreads unchecked into neighbourhoods both rich and poor.
There are intimations of a conspiracy, a social experiment gone wrong and unwanted interference by parliamentary higher-ups. And it falls on Reid and his partners to keep the peace amid the chaos, in a line reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling (“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”).
The violence and grime are unrelenting, but rarely gratuitous. Ripper Street is both gripping and strangely hypnotic. It’s high-minded, but not pretentious. The language, dialogue, dialect and cadence sound true to the time, but are not so obscure that Ripper Street becomes impossible to follow.
The attention to period detail — from the blood running in gutters to the dirt and grime on children’s faces — is exquisite, but it never overwhelms the story.
As a reviewer for the U.K. Guardian noted, “Cor blimey, East London, 1889 ain’t no place for no shrinking violet.”
Ripper Street is hard to find — the Space channel? — but it’s worth the effort.
Be warned, though, that despite the early hour, this is not family viewing.
6 p.m., Space
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