The good, gruesome new Brit drama Ripper Street (Saturday, Space, 9 p.m.) is set in 1889 and yet feels both contemporary and very familiar.
For the umpteenth time in movies and TV, we're taken back to the era of Jack the Ripper – the filthy, teeming streets of London, brothels, bodices and earnest police officers trying to use new technology and forensic evidence to solve crimes.
The sense of the contemporary was emphatic in the opening episode. The setting was the period when Jack the Ripper seemed to have stopped his killing spree, and viewers first saw a ghoulish bit of tourism unfold – people were being led around East London to see the exact spots where the Ripper's victims were found. At the same time, there was an avid tabloid press competing for new information about the serial killer.
A body was found. It looked like the Ripper's work, but was it? It was the task of Police Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), his Detective Sergeant Drake (Jerome Flynn from Game of Thrones) and Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), a former Pinkerton detective and U.S. Army surgeon, to determine what was going on.
The seediness and depravity of London during the period was on full display (in the U.K., where Ripper Street has been airing recently on the BBC, there were many complaints from viewers about some gory, blood-soaked scenes), and the series continues to be unafraid to disturb.
The second episode airs on Saturday – you can find the pilot on demand – and it becomes clear that each episode is both an excellent mystery and highlights a key aspect of the period in which it is set. The first episode dwelt much on the arrival of commercial pornography. This one deals with the role of children in the late Victorian period.
A toy maker is found brutally beaten to death. A 14-year-old boy is captured by vigilantes, charged, prosecuted and quickly convicted of murder. The sentence is death by hanging. It's the job of Reid and his team to figure out if the boy is actually guilty.
This leads them into the underworld of child-thieves and child-prostitutes. Thing is, of course, it's not so much an underworld – it's on the surface. It's just that nobody thinks much about it. At times the episode feels like Oliver Twist seen through demonic eyes.
Ripper Street moves quickly and confidently into the nets of intrigue in the plot, and anyone expecting a cozy period-piece British police procedural will be taken aback by the briskness, the gore and the savagery of the society depicted. It has an air of bleakness, but it isn't pessimistic. The acting is strong throughout, with Macfadyen especially effective. While Copper, the first made-for-BBC-America drama has soaked up tons of attention, it turns out that Ripper Street, made in Ireland for the BBC, is the very superior drama.
Also airing this weekend
The 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards (Sunday, Global,
8 p.m.) used to be a bit obscure, but since this thing called "awards season" evolved into
a phenomenon, the SAG Awards are now on prime-time TV,
and a lot of people watch.
This is an actors-only event –
no speeches from behind-the-scenes people you've never heard of. Among the presenters are Ben Affleck, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Jeff Daniels, Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer
Lawrence. Leading the movie nominations are Les Misérables, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. On the TV end of things, Modern Family is tops, with
four nominations. Expect long-winded speeches and inside jokes.
Republic of Doyle (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m.) involves Jake and Mal
trying to find a kidnapped girl, and viewers learning more about Constable Leslie Bennett
(Krystin Pellerin) and her very dangerous undercover assignment. No, she didn't go off the rails while pining for Jake Doyle. Who would? The subplot has invigorated the show.
All time ET. Check local listings.