That’s the central question asked in “Ripper Street,” a new crime drama airing on BBC America. And the answer creates a new kind of TV show — a British period drama, a character study, a mystery and a graphically sexual and violent setting all come into play.
The result is as excellent as it is dark.
“Ripper Street” is, in its essence, a police procedural. The show follows the murder investigations of Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen, “MI-5”), former US Army surgeon Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) and Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn, “Game of Thrones”). These three men — alternately aided and hindered by a collection of policemen, informants and prostitutes — are brilliant but flawed crime-solvers.
It’s almost as if someone took Sherlock Holmes and split him into three parts. The most Sherlock-ian of the lot is Reid, the reserved and observant detective with a near obsession for the truth. Jackson, the American, isn’t far behind in the Holmes department — his deductive reasoning, medical skills and general misanthropy are reminiscent of “House.” The third fiddle to all of this is the gruff-but-sensitive, uneducated-but-moral Drake. His decency and slightly subordinate position make for something of a Watson character on “Ripper Street.”
This is no “Downton Abbey” rip-off. Set in late 19th-century London, a few months after the Jack the Ripper killings, this is a show filled with filth and violence of every kind. Dingy streets and desperate souls are the backdrop here. There is sex. There is graphic and honestly disturbing violence. It’s a look at a city on the edge of chaos, kept back only by an oft-hopeless police force.
It all works. Although “Ripper Street” does move at the slow pace characteristic of most British dramas, every scene and every line has meaning. Even the sexuality and violence are necessary. After all, the central crime of the pilot episode is related to the worst kinds of pornography — and yes, it was a big deal back then too.
As for flaws, don’t look for too many. The slow pace might be a problem for some, but that’s simply the nature of the beast. I will admit that I wanted a little more back-story on the central characters, especially the American Jackson. That, however, is certain to come as the series progresses.
One thing to keep in mind here: No matter how many crimes these men investigate, they will not be catching Jack the Ripper. Jack is gone, vanished from the streets without a trace. All that remains are further crimes and the memory of how very bad things can get in this dark and dirty place.
It’s not the actual killer that matters in “Ripper Street” though. It’s his ghost, forever haunting the men who were supposed to catch a serial killer and who instead must simply continue the never-ending and impossible task of fighting the crimes in Jack’s wake.
“Ripper Street” airs Saturdays at 9pm on BBC America.