Matthew Macfadyen hunts Jack the Ripper in BBC America’s “Ripper Street”

Matthew Macfadyen and Adam Rothenberg in BBC America's Ripper Street

Whitechapel, London, 1889. The time and the place are synonymous with the most infamous unsolved murder cases in history, and they’re the setting for this new series coming to BBC America’s Dramaville beginning January 19. Matthew Macfadyen stars as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, investigator of the Ripper murders and other crimes. Alongside him is Capt. Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), the forensic investigator whose way with an autopsy renders him invaluable to Reid’s mission as the body count on the street starts to mount.

It’s a fairly remarkable series, to start, but we have to admit that we’re glad that we got to see more than just the pilot episode, as the second episode varies a good deal in tone. In the pilot, we get the backdrop — a sampling of the Ripper-style murder, a sensationalist newspaper man making money off of other people’s misery, and lots of brothel action.

The follow-up episode is actually much better, drawing richly from Dickens’ Oliver Twist and a bit from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, with a brutal gang of children “owned” and directed by their ruthless Fagin-type leader who’s determined to see one of his pack hang rather than testify in open court against him.

As Reid, Macfadyen is as formidable as we’ve ever seen him. An older generation might liken him to a modern-day George Sanders, his steely determination couched in an affable sense of good humor. The other half of the team, Jackson, has a sense of mystery about him — an anxiety that Reid occasionally probes to get to the heart of — but Rothenberg plays his character close to the chest, not giving up much, and making for a tense dynamic that should serve this series well.

Obviously, Jack the Ripper was never caught and his crimes never definitively solved, so that particular ongoing subplot within the series will be the equivalent of Finding Bigfoot, but Ripper Street is about the chase, and with the bloody tidal wave that’s coming our way, the pursuit could easily go on for years.

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