The stylish "Whitechapel" (9 p.m. Oct. 26, BBC America; 3 stars) tells the story of a copycat killer, but the series itself does a whole lot of copying from past crime shows. It's a wonder it manages to be so riveting.
The six-part drama follows rookie detective inspector Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), an ambitious young officer who is being groomed for a cushy job at police HQ. To get there, though, he has to spend some time in the trenches with an unruly homicide squad led by veteran Detective Sergeant Miles (Phil Davis), who immediately challenges his new boss. "Another fast tracker," he scoffs.
Chandler doesn't do himself any favors with the guys. A neat freak who wears expensive tailored suits, he scolds Miles and the disheveled staff about their appearance, their work ethic and their body odor. ("Haven't you heard of showers?" he asks.)
Chandler loses his lunch when faced with their gruesome first case, that of a young woman who is ripped to shreds in the Whitechapel area of East London. Miles is convinced it's the work of her ex, but when another woman is similarly murdered, Chandler suspects there's more going on. He's convinced by a professional "Ripperologist" Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) that the killings are replicating Jack the Ripper's murders in the 1880s.
Miles can't believe his boss is buying into the theory. "Every time there's a stabbing in Whitechapel they come crawling out of the woodwork," he warns Chandler. "I hate Ripperologists."
Oh, but how his mind is changed as the case plays out, ending in Episode 3 with a heart-stopping race against time.
Any fan of crime dramas will probably recognize the familiar subplots from past police procedurals.
- A neatnik detective?"Monk."
- An uncooperative group of underlings? "Prime Suspect."
- A detective who can't stomach a bloody murder scene? Too many shows to name.
I cannot even count the number of times Jack the Ripper's story has been retold or repurposed on TV. (Or the story of the 1960s organized-crime spree by twin terrors Ronnie and Reggie Kray, which is evoked in the series' second half.) "Whitechapel" defies the odds, however, rising above its cliches with solid writing, taut direction, evocative cinematography and great performances by Penry-Jones, Davis and Pemberton.
It appears more copycats are planned for their characters: British broadcaster ITV has renewed it for a two-story, six-episode new season.