Judge Gordon Sullivan isn't a detective, but he's got the cynicism down pat.
Our reviews of Cracker: Series 1 (published December 18th, 2003), Cracker: Series 2 (published May 3rd, 2004), Cracker: Series 3 (published May 3rd, 2004), and Cracker: The Complete U.S. Series (published August 24th, 2005) are also available.
"I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I am too much."—Fitz
At least since Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin stories, the mystery genre has been growing in popularity. What ties the disparate threads of mystery stories together are not the apparently unsolvable crimes, but the detectives who peer into the hearts of people and situations to see what others can't. For instance, I'm sure many more people can remember details about the famous Sherlock Holmes—his pipe, violin, cocaine, and deductive logic—than can recall the details of most of his mysteries. In the same way, Fitz, the criminal psychologist at the center of Cracker, is more memorable by far than any of the cases he helps "crack." I fondly recall his drinking, smoking, gambling, and witty wordplay much more easily than I do any of the criminals he helped put away. For the achievement of creating a unique, fascinating detective to add to the mystery canon, Cracker should be viewed by any fan of mystery or dramatic television. Cracker: The Complete Collection only makes it easier for fans and the uninitiated alike to enjoy this remarkable U.K. series.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Robbie Coltrane, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) is a criminal psychologist who can't keep his life together. He's got family problems, drinking problems, gambling problems, weight problems, smoking problems, and a generally cynical attitude towards life. He's asked to assist in particularly difficult police investigations by creating psychological profiles of the criminals in question. While doing this work he becomes involved with DS Jane Penhaligon (Geraldine Sommerville, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), who seems to provide some comfort for the embattled Fitz, though nothing seems to go that easily in his life.
Acorn Media presents all eleven of the show's mysteries, devoting a disc to each plotline with the exception of the end of Series Three.
Generally speaking, American mystery (or crime) television focuses on complex mysteries and simple characters. For instance, CSI often features complex, forensically difficult crimes, but even the most opaque character on the show, Gil Grissom, is a pretty simple guy. Most people are either going to love him or hate him depending on their tolerance for his mysterious ways. However, he's far from complex: his motives are usually fairly clear and his reactions to situations predictable, and there doesn't seem to be much depth to him despite his opaque history. Don't get me wrong, I love William Petersen playing Gil Grissom, but my point is that he's not a paragon of psychological complexity or realism. In contrast, Robbie Coltrane as Fitz is infinitely more complex than any of the crimes he helps solve. Plus, he's not an easy "love 'em or hate 'em" kind of guy. He has many lovable qualities, like his charm, wit, and prodigious intelligence. However, he also has many lamentable qualities, like his addictions, emotional immaturity, and pettiness. Fitz is a force of nature, but his powers often maim as much as they heal, making for excellent drama.
The ambivalent portrayal of Fitz extends beyond the character to his personal life, and the show's creators are not afraid to toy with the audience's sympathies. Geraldine Sommerville is perfectly cast as the feisty and strong-willed Detective Sergeant Penhaligon, and her chemistry with the brilliant doctor is undeniable. The two tease each other unmercifully, and the audience obviously roots for them to get together. At this point it would be easy to make Fitz's wife a boring shrew so that Fitz feels justified in stepping out, but Cracker goes in a different direction. Instead, Fitz's wife Judith is surprisingly sympathetic, both to us and towards her husband. She understands him, generally forgives him, and allows him both his brilliance and his mistakes. Although I was absolutely a fan of the Penhaligon/Fitz pairing, I was torn because of the dedication and understanding of his wife. I'm sure that's exactly what creator Jimmy McGovern had in mind.
It also helps that this show has one of the most brilliant casts ever assembled for television. Robbie Coltrane perfectly embodies the excesses of Fitz, as well as his tenderness. Geraldine Sommerville is an excellent mixture of tough savvy and emotional vulnerability, and the show benefits from the early participation of the often-overlooked Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who). Even the guest stars (which include a pre-Trainspotting appearance by Robert Carlyle) are uniformly excellent.
Cracker was previously available in three separate editions by series, along with a single-disc version of the latest installment, "A New Terror." Released by HBO, the shows suffered from mixed transfers and an almost utter lack of supplements. The transfers don't appear to have been upgraded this time out, with all but the final episode being presented in their original full-frame aspect ratio. "A New Terror" was shot widescreen and gets the anamorphic treatment here. The show looks better as it goes on, although none of the transfers are unwatchable. The show uses its stereo sound to decent effect, and subtitles are included for those who can't penetrate some of the accents on the show. Acorn Media added a lone extra to the previously barebones editions. We get a 45-minute documentary on the making of the show that features interviews with the cast, crew, and creators, interspersed with clips from the show. Obviously I'd love more, especially from Coltrane and creator McGovern, but this is a significant improvement over previous editions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although I love Cracker and hold all those involved in high esteem, I would be remiss if I didn't point out a few criticisms. In my view, from the show's first episode ("The Mad Woman in the Attic") to the first episode of the second series ("To Be A Somebody) there isn't a single misstep or wrong note, from characterization to plot and direction. It is, quite simply, perfect. However, after that immensely draining episode the show began to slip a little to me. Fitz's domestic situation became more melodramatic, and the crimes were never quite memorable enough to pick up the slack. Honestly, this is quibbling, as the show, and especially Coltrane, remained thoroughly watchable until the end. If Cracker had maintained the energy and intensity of that first series it would easily be in the running for best ever TV show, period. Instead, it gets to comfortably hang about in the Top Ten.
For fans who've already picked up those previous HBO releases, then there's little to entice you here beyond the documentary, so give that a rental to get a peek behind the scenes of the show. Anyone with any interest in crime shows, especially criminal psychology, should at least rent this set and strap themselves in for twenty-two hours of entertainment bliss.
Fitz may be too much, and although this set of Cracker: The Complete Series can't quite match his output, it's more than enough to earn a not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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