The bad old days

British actor Tom Weston-Jones plays hero Kevin Corcoran in ‘Copper’

The origins of the word “copper” as slang for “policeman” are much contested: one theory is that it refers to the heavy metal badges worn by New York City’s first police sergeants. What is not contested is how much is riding on a new TV drama of that name. The first original drama to air on BBC America, a cable channel that until now has brought British shows to US audiences, it has been produced by a team whose record in the business has been second to none. Viewers and critics will cut them no slack.

Christina Wayne was the executive at AMC who saw the potential in the script of Mad Men when so many others had passed on it. Copper is her first foray back into drama since leaving AMC, in 2009, to become president of Cineflix studios. As the name implies, it is a cop show and one set, like many others, in New York. The twist is that the year is 1864 – an idea born, says Wayne, out of a simple moment of musing as she walked through New York “just wondering what it would have been like to live there when people travelled by horse, there was dirt everywhere, that kind of thing”.

She asked Will Rokos, co-writer of Monster’s Ball (the 2001 film that won Halle Berry an Oscar) and more recently episodes of Southland (the boxset connoisseur’s current edgy cop show of choice), to write the pilot, and Tom Fontana to oversee the project as showrunner. Fontana created Oz, HBO’s first long-running TV drama, which paved the way for The Sopranos and The Wire. His Emmy award-winning work on series such as Homicide: Life on the Street – the influential detective show whose creative staff went on to work on The Wire and The Shield – and groundbreaking medical drama St Elsewhere made him the ideal person to execute Wayne’s vision of a cop show that deconstructs the genre. “We’ve seen enough cop shows set in New York to last us until the end of time,” says Fontana. “Copper has echoes of traditional cop shows yet violates those rules.”

Its world, says Rokos, is one where “you are surrounded by death, it is legal for a 10-year-old girl to get married, justice in your neighbourhood depends on the moral compass of your local police officer, and police forces from different precincts actually fight with each other”. The action centres on Manhattan’s teeming Five Points borough (the setting for Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York).

The series’ hero, the “copper” of its title, is Kevin Corcoran, a former bareknuckle boxer who has returned from the civil war to find his wife is missing and his daughter dead. “He has to try to set laws in a lawless land, create a moral code and not give in to despair,” says Wayne. “You’re willing to follow him anywhere.”

Corcoran is played by 24-year-old British actor Tom Weston-Jones. “He’s like a juggernaut,” says Weston-Jones, “constantly moving forward.” So, it seems, is Weston-Jones, who played a lead role in World Without End, a TV mini-series made by Ridley Scott’s production company, just before shooting Copper. At the time of casting, though, he was little known – a point that worked in his favour, as the producers chose to shun famous faces. “They take you out of the time,” says Wayne. “In Mad Men those actors weren’t famous but they became the characters.”

Wayne is moving into unfamiliar territory in other ways too. “[Copper] won’t have that drive of one person’s singular, passionate vision, which was essential to the success of Mad Men and Breaking Bad,” she says, referring respectively to Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, whose brainchildren she nurtured at AMC. “This is a collaborative effort more than any other project.” Rokos and Fontana initially developed characters and episodes alone. “Will hasn’t worked in TV as much, I didn’t want to put him off his process,” says Fontana. They would read over each other’s work, making suggestions or edits, with the creative buck stopping at Fontana’s door.

The collaborative ethos extended beyond the scriptwriters, with the actors’ interpretations of their characters feeding back significantly into their plotlines and dialogue. “Tom [Fontana] said to me very early on, ‘There’s always a point where the actors overtake the writers’,” says Anastasia Griffith, who plays society lady Elizabeth Haverford, one of Corcoran’s allies. “We’re in costume 16 hours a day, we develop a cadence of language, we’re in that person’s skin.”

“They see something in a character we don’t see,” says Rokos. “Tom Weston-Jones brought a bitter, desperate depth of what war had forced him to do, that really influenced the character’s development.”

Wayne weighed in too. “I always want to surprise and not spoonfeed the audience,” she says. “I would sometimes say, ‘The characters should be more complicated’ and Tom would say, ‘You said don’t go too far!’ I think I drove him crazy.”

Despite the team behind it, Copper has taken five years to get to the screen. The production cost, while not up there with the record set by Boardwalk Empire – whose pilot alone is rumoured to have cost HBO $20m – was one reason for that. But a more significant reason seems to have been that an industry run on subscriptions and advertising does not have the same appetite for creative risk as the artists who pitch to it. “With Copper no one said the show was bad but they all said it didn’t fit their brand,” says Fontana. “Every channel has a brand these days. When I wrote Oz, HBO didn’t have a brand. Every time we were told ‘No’, Will and I would have just gone and crawled in a corner somewhere but Christina would say, ‘No, we’re going to get it done’.”

Wayne’s time at AMC helped break HBO’s monopoly on high-quality drama. “I’ll continue to push the envelope,” she says. “Sometimes the end result is out of your hands but I’ll continue to stay up at night worrying about it.” BBC America’s bosses are probably doing likewise.

‘Copper’ airs on August 19 on BBC America

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.