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Ripper Street another reason to give BBC America a test drive

The three rough-hewn crime-solvers of Ripper Street. BBC photo

Premiering: Saturday, Jan. 19th at 8 p.m. (central) on BBC America
Starring: Matthew Macfayden, Jerome Flynn, Adam Rothenberg, MAnna Buring, Amanda Hale, Clive Russell
Produced by: Richard Warlow, Greg Brenman, Will Gould, Polly Hill, Simon Vaghan

Absent cell phones, computers, incriminating security cameras, DNA evidence or even a decent donut, the cops of 1889 East London's H Division are a primitive species indeed.

Charged with keeping a modicum of order in the murky Whitechapel area, they collar wrongdoers in elemental fashion. By-the-book niceties -- which hadn't been invented yet anyway -- are not suitable in the immediate aftermath of Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. Or is it in fact really over?

BBC America's Ripper Street, with an eight-episode order for its first season, begins throwing its weight around Saturday night. And the specter of J the R is immediately raised anew when a young woman is found with her throat slashed in addition to various other cuts and bruises.

In a recently posted review of Fox's The Following, I sermonized on prime-time TV's almost epidemic use of young woman as corpses and/or terrified kidnap or assault victims. Thankfully, Ripper Street won't be making a habit of this, judging from the descriptions of upcoming episodes. They include a cholera outbreak, child gangs, a string of "brilliantly masterminded" robberies and a dock strike.

The premiere hour raises the specter of the prostitute-carving Ripper in order to steel Division H boss Edmund Reid's (Matthew Macfayden) determination to find the real killer and move on.

But a muckraking newspaperman would much rather stir this pot. And previous chief inspector Frederick Abberline (Clive Russell) still feels diminished by his failure to collar the Ripper. He'd like another crack, and is disposed to treat the initially available evidence as proof that England's Most Wanted is still on the prowl.

Inspector Reid, a lead detective on the Ripper case, comes equipped with a tortured, mysterious past (a police show constant then and now). He's still in love with wife Emily (Amanda Hale), although the pilot light lately is on flicker after a shared tragedy befell them.

Reid's muscle is Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), who moonlights as a dominant bare-knuckled boxer when not beating the stuffing out of uncooperative suspects or information-holders.

Their third wheel is former American Pinkerton detective Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), who knows his way around a bare bones autopsy slab and is on the run from an undisclosed "incident." Jackson and Long Susan Hart (MyAnna Buring) made their escape from the States together. She now runs a top shelf brothel, and doesn't get along too famously with Homer anymore.

BBC America, being advertiser-supported, no doubt will have to snip most of the recurring nudity from the original BBC telecast. Without giving away too much, let's just say that the key to the real murderer involves a very early vestige of the porn film industry.

Reid brooks no nonsense in his relentless investigations. And it's fun to hear him rage, "Do you think me some boneheaded flatfoot?" Or a bit later on: "If I see this in print, I'll be back here for some ripping of my own."

Ripper Street is pretty ripping good for the most part. Its oft-grimy 1899 setting is effectively re-created and as such is a nice companion piece to BBC America's Copper, which is set in 1860s New York City and will have a second season.

Both series practice their own trial-by-error forms of forensics in order to hasten the speed of the crime-solving. Some of this can be a stretch, but it's often ingenious as well. And when all else fails, a little fist therapy can really move things along.