"Copper," BBC America's new original series, starts with a grimy, not-yet-pubescent urchin girl offering protagonist Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) sex as thanks for the hard-boiled egg he tossed her way. Last week's episode of AMC's "Hell on Wheels" found a man being brutally murdered, chopped up and fed to pigs — and that's after a mob commits a near-lynching earlier in the hour. No one can accuse these shows of glamorizing the past — in fact, out of the current run of period dramas on television, it's really only "Downton Abbey" on PBS that applies a sheen of nostalgia to its upstairs-downstairs dealings and its portrayal of the hierarchical ecosystem that is a historical estate.
With the backstabbing and brutality of the returning HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," the even darker machinations of Showtime's "The Borgias" and the gangsters and their girls in Starz's "Magic City," period settings have become not just a way to relish vintage fashions and set dressing, but also a way to do the same with retrograde social attitudes and standards of living (and dying). Some of this is a side effect of the fact that these shows are all on cable, where the ability to push past broadcast-channel limitations on content sometimes also feels like a requirement, regardless of whether a show is set in Prohibition-era New Jersey or contemporary Albuquerque.
But television has also developed a complicated relationship with the past as a way of excusing or allowing behavior that in present-day settings requires harsher judgment. When Walter White has people killed on his path to becoming a meth kingpin on "Breaking Bad," we understand it's wrong; when Nucky Thompson does so to stabilize his place as the boss of Atlantic City, well, he's an anti-hero and it was another time, when life was a little cheaper.
Does TV have a tendency to treat the gritty past as a kind of guilty pleasure, a chance and an excuse to indulge in the muck and murk? I'd argue yes, at least when those details overwhelm the main stuff of the narrative and characters. It's not for nothing that that first shot in the "Copper" pilot is of 1864 street beggars competing with animals for garbage scraps tossed out on the street while a man with a missing leg goes by on crutches — it's not just to confirm the setting of "Gangs of New York"-era Manhattan, it's also to announce that things were really rough back then. In both "Copper" and "Hell on Wheels," set one year later out in the West, the women are mostly prostitutes, with the exception, in each show, of a young, blond widow whose outlier position allows her to move through the world of the show while maintaining a different social status. There aren't a lot of other opitions for women of the era in these kinds of rough-and-tumble stories.
And there is a certain amount of strange satisfaction to be had from watching these female characters bounce off these restrictions in the same way that the African-American men played by Michael Kenneth Williams, Ato Essandoh and Common run up against tough racial barriers — not because we enjoy these prejudices, but because they're so blatantly signaled and so easy to condemn.
We knew before Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) in "Boardwalk Empire" did that women would get the vote; we're aware that people are no longer hanged from lampposts in the middle of downtown New York because of the color of their skin the way that Dr. Freeman's (Essandoh) brothers-in-law were in "Copper." Their problems have parallels in the sexism and racism of modern day, but they're also, in their own way, escapist: Because they're so exaggerated, they take place at a comfortable distance from which we can both disapprove and file them away as dealt with long ago. These days we have running water and everyone can vote, hurray! (Well, except if you end up being suppressed by unfounded voter-fraud legislation, but knotty present-day realities like that are the reason we look to the 19th century for our entertainment.)
Even "Mad Men" started off flaunting its era specifics in its first season, laying on the constant smoking, the drinking, the chauvinism and the bigotry with a far heavier hand than would be used in the later episodes. Part of the establishing shock of the show was being able to giggle at the attitudes toward the workplace and women, comfortable in the knowledge that things aren't like that now.
But "Mad Men" let go of that tendency as it went on, not softening things but allowing those behaviors and prejudices to become part of the environment in which the show's set rather than the things that define it. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons the show's been so reluctant to confront the topic of race and the Civil Rights Movement taking place outside the doors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. "Mad Men" has ceased to be a show about a time and place and instead has become one about a group of characters, and those characters occupy a perch far above a lot of the real-world turmoil going on down in the streets. "Mad Men" isn't about its era anymore, that's just its setting, and it's a better show for it. And while it's too early to tell for "Copper," it does seem to be a lesson that "Hell on Wheels" and "Boardwalk Empire" are slowly taking to heart.