“Loosely based on real characters and events” is how the press notes describes the new 8-part series Ripper Street, debuting Saturday night on BBC America (home to other excellent shows including Luther and Whitechapel). Regardless of how accurately the show depicts real-life occurrences, London’s East End during the late 19th century was probably not a routine stop for tourists or sightseers.
In 1889, the notorious Jack the Ripper remains at-large. For Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), who in reality investigated the Ripper murders with Frederick Abberline (played by Johnny Depp in From Hell and a minor character here), that is merely one problem among many. Working in law enforcement in that place at that time must have been a thankless job. In the show’s first 2 episodes alone Reid deals with murderers, gangs, and a wide variety of criminals and malcontents.
Episode 1 kicks off with the discovery of a young woman’s body in an alley. Her throat has been slit and the immediate assumption is that Jack the Ripper is responsible. Reid, believing that a copycat could be responsible and wanting to avoid public panic, convinces a sensationalistic reporter to give him a few days to prove that the Ripper didn’t do it. His investigation uncovers some kinky stuff along with what could be the world’s first snuff film.
The second episode finds Reid looking into the beating death of an old toymaker. A young street kid has been convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang, and a “vigilante committee” will do whatever it takes to make sure that happens as they wage war on a “juvenile plague” in Whitechapel.
Assisting Reid and his investigations are two men: part-time boxer Sergeant Bennet Drake (Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn) and Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), an American and a surgeon.
Ripper Street is a somewhat routine police procedural that (at least in the first 2 episodes) kicks off with a gruesome murder before resolving itself by the end of its 60-minute running time. However, that familiarity hardly means it offers no reasons to watch. There are plenty. In addition to a solid cast and outstanding production design, the period details are often fascinating. Early forensic science is covered along with other advancements including moving pictures.
It also benefits from a palpable sense of menace. Whitechapel is a dangerous place and vicious crimes can (and do) come out of nowhere and can affect anyone at any time. The vigilantes exist because there is no way the police can keep everyone safe on their own. They are up against too much. A tense scene at an orphanage in the second episode effectively conveys this. Reid and his men, outnumbered and cornered, only survive after receiving help from an unlikely source.
It’s a minor hindrance that one of the show’s strengths is also a weakness. While it does convey the danger of Whitechapel, it falls a little short when it comes to demonstrating the paralyzing fear of Jack the Ripper people there felt. There’s too much telling and not enough showing, and you never get a real sense of what it must have been like to live there with the Ripper at-large. Reid and others mention wanting to avoid public panic, but the dread that is so frequently referred to should feel more tangible.
Still, Ripper Street starts with plenty of promise and seems like a place genre fans will enjoy visiting. It’s an interesting setting and an interesting time, and after seeing the show you’ll be very glad you can glimpse it from a safe distance.