'Copper' Season 2: 'History is our guide, not our master'

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A musty odor of manure, muddy straw and vegetables long since spoiled heightens the realistic feel of squalor.

On the massive Toronto set of "Copper," the details of Manhattan's Five Points in 1865 are precise down to the brush on the madam's vanity and Hebrew lettering on the pawnshop window.

In the mansion part of the soundstage, in front of a working fireplace, co-creator and executive producer Tom Fontana ( "Oz," "Homicide: Life on the Street") and new showrunner Thomas Kelly ( "Blue Bloods") chat about the changes for BBC America's original drama, which returns with 13 episodes for Season 2 on Sunday, June 23.

"As always the center of the universe is Corcoran," Fontana tells Zap2it. "He is trying to be a moral cop in an immoral society. He is trying to be a moral friend. A new element arrives in Five Points, in the person of Donovan."

Donal Logue ( "Vikings," "Sons of Anarchy") is Gen. Brendan Donovan, back from the Civil War. Like so many of the show's characters, he's an Irish immigrant. Donovan came from Kerry, as did Logue's parents. Logue nails the accent, playing the formidable man who was a cop, an entrepreneur and now a political ward boss not to be crossed.

"He believes in bettering the lives of immigrants," says Kelly.

Kelly, who has written about New York's past, says as if it were a mantra: "History is our guide, not our master."

"So what is our master?" Fontana asks.

"The story," Kelly says.

Logue, like many on this set, studied this era.

"We didn't have to live as we did in Ireland," Logue says. "We didn't need the Protestant overlords. We didn't have to keep the old system in the New World, this new dynamic of democracy."

Five Corners teems with immigrants, returning Civil War vets and freed slaves. In this section of downtown Manhattan, a black doctor tends to the poor, and a tough madam knows everyone's business.

When we last saw the show's flawed hero, Detective Kevin Corcoran ( Tom Weston-Jones), he left his partner, Detective Francis Maguire ( Kevin Ryan), for dead after learning Maguire slept with Corcoran's wife. Corcoran was also shooting morphine and hallucinating about his dead daughter.

"In the first season you see him as incredibly hungry for any scrap of information," Weston-Jones says of his character's quest to find his missing wife. "In the second season, the pace is incredibly quick. You get to see many colors with each character."

In Season 2, viewers can see his face, now that he's clean-shaven.

"His actions may not be noble, but internally he stays true to his beliefs," Weston-Jones says. "It is always fun to have a duality."

In the first three episodes, Corcoran remains a man consumed by whatever case he's on, ignoring his own life.

"I would like to see Corky push the audience's liking of him, just to test how bad he can be," Weston-Jones says. "Anyone can turn, especially in a place where the people are morally ambiguous. Something I really love about American history - to a Welsh person like I am - American history is so fast. Things just happen grander, quicker."

"Copper" teaches history without being didactic.

"When I first got the role I thought there were no black doctors in 1864," says Ato Essandoh, who plays Dr. Freeman, a former slave. "There were six or seven."

Freeman may be TV's most brilliant physician because he diagnoses and cures relying on basic chemistry, herbs and his wits, which rarely leave him - unless of course a snake oil salesman happens to poison his wife. 

"That's not a stern talking-to, that's an ass-whooping," Essandoh says of a punishing scene last season. This year, "there's much more at stake with him. It's just after the Draft Riots. It's dangerous enough now with his wife. There is much more to lose."

Portraying Sara, his wife, is Tessa Thompson, who says, "Playing someone last year who was so isolated, felt isolated and separate, the benefit is you have the chance to really dig in."

Listening to Frederick Douglass ( Eamonn Walker) helps Sara come into her own.
As tough as the men are - and these guys strut for a reason - the women, particularly Madame Eva ( Franka Potente), are tougher.

"She's a businesswoman, and that's what I find remarkable," Potente says. "There are very few roles for women."

Her character is an immigrant, to which most of these actors - from Germany, Ireland and Wales - can relate.

"He's in search of the American dream," Ryan says of his character, Maguire.

In the season opener, Ryan is gaunt and hirsute, having dropped 24 pounds to look convincing in jail scenes.

"At the end of the day he still loves Kevin, and he has a fear of abandonment, which is explained with his father leaving," Ryan says. "He just dealt with things in the wrong way."

As do many "Copper" characters as they dabble in blackmail, murder and revenge, all at a faster clip than last season.

"It is just streamlined," Weston-Jones says. "There's a lot more sex on the show this year as well. It's not inappropriate, since 50 percent of it takes place in a brothel. I think people will be pleased with how the show progressed; I certainly am."
Photo/Video credit: BBC America