Preparing for the premiere of the new period drama Ripper Street, BBC America recently aired the entirety of a similar series: Whitechapel.
Both series use the name of Jack the Ripper to place their shows within a rich history of mystery, of horrific crime, and of a specific place in London. Whitechapel is a small area of London, NE of the Tower of London. It’s pretty unremarkable when you consider all the things that have happened during the course of London’s history (see my post on Boris Johnson’s Life of London), but it is known world-wide because of Jack the Ripper, and because of all the things that changed for modern society, for the press, and for police work during the one year that Jack the Ripper terrorized the neighborhood.
It has been almost 150 years since Jack the Ripper committed his crimes, but he is still the best known serial killer in the world, and a source of endless fascination and theoretical postulating. So both of these shows are anchoring their (relatively standard) police dramas to the J-t-R myth in order to draw in viewers. The problem inherent in this strategy is that after you talk about Jack the Ripper, almost every other case and every other villain is going to be anticlimactic.
Whitechapel was first broadcast in the UK in 2009 (US in 2011), and has had three seasons (series) so far. A fourth season is set to premiere in the UK this year.
This is a modern police procedural, but it attempts to draw a line between past crimes and current ones. The first season is 6 episodes, all following a Jack-the-Ripper copycat. The main characters include:
DI Chandler (middle): The OCD new leader of the schlubby old-school homicide detectives in Whitechapel. Much of the show is devoted to his relationships with the other detectives, and his own neuroses. Played by the very posh Rupert Penry-Jones
DS Miles (left): This character is played by Phil Davis, who I recognized immediately as the murderer/cabbie from the very first episode of Sherlock. While watching that episode, I remember thinking that this guy was a great actor, so I was thrilled to see him in something else. He plays Chandler’s second in command, and the two often butt heads on how to manage the other detectives and how to pursue cases. But he is a very human character and fulfills a void left because of Chandler’s lack of connection with others.
Edward Buchanon (right): Edward is a Ripper-ologist during the first series, lending his expertise to the search for the copycat. After that, the idea the show takes is that current crimes can be compared to older crimes and historical information can help to point police in the right direction. While this might be true on a large scale (e.g. knowing that women are more likely to kill by poisoning), I fail to see how comparing one specific modern crime to one specific historical crime can be considered accurate. There has to be a reason why the modern crime would happen in the same way as the historical crime. You can’t just assume a correlation! At any rate, Edward manages the historical archives and offers his advice based on these historical data.
The first series, as I said, deals with a Jack the Ripper copycat. I found this series the most exciting, and was let down when the following series dealt with the legend of the Kray brothers. Their fame has not quite reached this side of the pond, so I had no connection with them. In the third series, instead of focusing the entire 6-episode arc on one villain, there were three two-part episodes. I think this worked a bit better. The last villain in particular, called the Mantis, was pretty scary.
I think season 2 was the low point for me, but it started to recover in season 3. DI Chandler’s OCD continues to plague him and his relationships with his fellow policemen are strained and rearranged due to his emotional problems. Often, people with OCD are portrayed on TV in humorous or quirky ways (e.g. Monk) and it was interesting to see someone in a more serious role with this affliction. It wasn’t humorous at all.
Miles and Chandler are full-fledged characters, but everyone else fades easily into the background. I could only name one other character on the show. That’s not the mark of good writing.
Plus, do we really need another police procedural? Is this different enough from CSI, Law and Order, Copper, etc. etc. etc. Probably not. So if we don’t need Whitechapel, do we need Ripper Street?
Ripper Street premiered a few weeks ago in the UK, and in the US shortly after. I’ll withhold judgment until I watch at least the first series. Unlike Whitechapel, it is a period drama, taking place in 1889 in Whitechapel. From what I can tell, it’s Copper in London. I have hope for it because I do love Matthew Macfayden. But I hope that attaching the Jack the Ripper name to the series isn’t the only thing they’ve done to make it more than your average cop show.