Our reviews of Cracker: Series 2 (published May 3rd, 2004), Cracker: Series 3 (published May 3rd, 2004), Cracker: The Complete Collection (published March 18th, 2009), and Cracker: The Complete U.S. Series (published August 24th, 2005) are also available.
A brilliant British detective drama
When something is great, inherently near perfect, there is no need for hype. Words can only destroy the fantasy like quality of the pristine entity you are trying to describe, like giving an angel an earth-bound shape or trying to recreate the sound of a symphony out of non-musical instruments. When faced with such conundrums, writers usually break out the thesaurus or worse yet, their worn out sixth-grade poetry skills, and try combinations of words to evoke the epiphany they've just had. Few are successful and more times than not they sell the "something" short, either over-generalizing it or making it larger than life when it's really just a wholly faultless thing, not able to be readily categorized or described. But oh how they will try, and sad to say, you best sit back and get your pontification blinders on. You see, after viewing Cracker: Series 1 on DVD, this critic is about to join the jokers and commit literary hara-kiri in a futile attempt to explain just how friggin' fantastic he thought it was. You can save yourself a lot of time, skip the whole review, and take this information to heart as rock solid cold hard fact: Cracker, the British crime show from about ten years ago starring Robbie Coltrane, is grandiose, stupendous, and without equal. It's amazing, engrossing, and deeply satisfying. It runs circles around the so-called cop dramas that America engages in and instantly creates memorable, magnificent characters. It is one of the best shows in the history of television. If you've never seen it, you should. Once you have, you'll want more, immediately.
Facts of the Case
The first series of Cracker contains three exceptional stories that play out over seven riveting episodes (two for stories one and three, three for story two). The basic premise of the show is this:
Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald is a forensic psychologist called in by the local police to help solve crimes and "crack" captured suspects. Fitz has a remarkable way of getting to the very heart of the matter, seeing through the phoniness and façades to discover the true motive. Too bad he can't solve his own problems. Fitz is a man of much overindulgence. He is overweight, drinks to excess, smokes like a raging chimney, and gambles himself (and his family) into financial insolvency. While a brilliant psychological mind, he is an interpersonal disaster. He is quick to anger, suffers fools very badly, and loves to put most people in their place, using sarcastic wit and incisive determinations to cut them down to size. Unfortunately, this makes Fitz look petty to almost everyone, and it's a crown he does not wear well.
Among his reluctant colleagues on the police are Deputy Chief Inspector David Bilborough, a young brash officer with a real nose for crime solving and an antagonistic attitude toward his bureaucratic superiors. There's Deputy Sergeant Jimmy Beck, a regular bull-headed bloke who holds some very chauvinistic and outdated ideas about police work and who should do it. And then there's Deputy Sergeant Jane "Panhandle" Penhaligon, the grunt work wannabe who is usually left doing the dirty jobs, one aspect of which is to haul Fitz around from case to case. They seem to enjoy each other's company, and "Panhandle," as Fitz calls her, seems to be one of the few people who find his cutting way with words fascinating. She is constantly defending Fitz to her higher ups who see him as an arrogant ass.
As for the cases in Series 1, they are:
"The Mad Woman in the Attic": That's what Fitz calls memory: the insane entity in the back of your mind that you just won't let out, even when it may help/hurt you. After a young girl is found brutally slaughtered on a train, Fitz is called in to develop a profile of the killer. An amnesiac found near the tracks fits the description perfectly. The police feel he is faking the memory loss, but Fitz believes differently and starts to work with him. As the clues mount up around him, it will take a breakthrough to discover what this mystery man is really all about.
On the homefront: Fitz's wife leaves him after 18 years of marriage because she can no longer tolerate his drinking and gambling. Though he promises to reform, Judith Fitzgerald has heard it all before. And she's not listening this time.
"To Say I Love You": For that's all the pair of alienated lovers want to do. Their bond is strong, strong enough to excuse murder. Tina and her stuttering beau Sean kill her loan shark when he roughs her up and takes his karaoke trophies. As the police investigate, the two make a deal: they will never be separated and will kill all who try to do so. When a young police detective sets up a rendezvous with Tina for a little late night "questioning," he becomes the duo's next victim. It's up to Fitz to stop the pair before they kill again. But their next target is even more unexpected…it's Fitz himself.
On the homefront: With his gambling still out of control and his drinking in overdrive, Judith will not return home and is seeking the aid of a therapist who just may have his eye on her. Fitz begins an innocent flirtation with DS Penhaligon.
"One Day a Lemming Will Fly": These are the words Fitz uses to get a confused criminal suspect to come down from a high-rise ledge. The quiet English professor is accused of killing a student in his class, a young blond boy who may have been gay…and learning lessons in such behavior from this misunderstood "instructor." With the local population in an uproar over the child's death, Fitz and Beck are placed in charge of the man and both are convinced he is a closet case, afraid to face the truth about himself and his crime. But there may be more to this suspect than they know, and Fitz may pay the price for thinking he knows it all.
On the homefront: Judith returns to the Fitzgerald home and she's on the offensive. She warns him that there'll be no let up. She is determined to change him. Said pressure is the catalyst for Fitz considering accepting Penhaligon's invitation to go on holiday with her.
Cracker is a great show…end of review…No? Okay…
Cracker is a classic, the kind of show you find yourself instantly getting lost in with characters you want to meet and spend time with. Lots of time. Indeed, like a good novel or a fine bottle of wine, Cracker is something to be savored, not rushed through so as to move on to the next bit of mindless fun. It's complex and controlled, telling its story in carefully measured couplets of amusement and expertly honed steps. It breaks convention as it lifts the formula cop show into the region of high art. It's the kind of entertainment experience that will have you thinking about it days later, wanting to go back and revisit the characters, picking up on little nuances, and reliving riveting moments of beautifully executed storyline all over again. Make no mistake about it: this is material that could go horribly askew in the wrong hands. The characters are all flawed and in denial. The crimes depicted are brutal and unrelenting and the entire tone of the show is one of defeated realism. But like a magnificent statue that comes crashing out of a bit of beat-up granite, Cracker smashes everything you think you know about television drama, police stories, and human vulnerability and reinvents the language for each, right before your delighted eyes. This is not crime noir or pastel flash and video game cops and robbers. This is pure human theater superbly produced.
Robbie Coltrane gives what is perhaps the single best performance by an actor in a television series, period. He is so dead on right with the way he turns phrases and facts to fit his eloquent streams of subconsciousness that it's a joy to be within his earshot. Coltrane is a mountain of a man, a burly bloke with a hard hatchet face who seems impervious to everything around him except what's within his peripheral passions. When he walks, it's in the determined stride of a raving rhino, and when he smokes, it's as if he is inhaling all of life itself along with the smoke. He can bellow with the best of them, using his robust physique to impress and provoke. But it is the vulnerable side of this gentle giant, the scared and scarred husband who is watching his family slip away, the frail faulted human who cannot resist a stiff drink or a game of chance, the solid professional who lets his insights occasionally get the best of him, that makes Fitz such a spectacular literary creation. Like all other classic characters from fiction, Coltrane's psychotic psychologist walks the fine line between despise and delight as he turns Fitz from a skilled investigator and sharp intuitive to a pathetic rumhead who won't allow himself to be wrong for the sake of admitting all his faults. There has basically never been a character as consistently three dimensional as Dr. Eddie Fitzgerald
But as magnificent as his acting is, some of the credit must be given to the words Coltrane is given to say. British scribe Jimmy McGovern is a wordsmith without equal. His way with dialogue is simply spectacular and each Cracker he writes (he did all seven shows here) is a precision engine of exposition, mystery, and action, humming along flawlessly without a wasted moment, false note, or flagging element. McGovern has inked a place in entertainment immortality with this show, something that few writers can point to in their career. Like a expert juggler who knows exactly when to add or subtract airborne objects, McGovern uses Fitz, his home life, the cases he is on, the criminals themselves, and the police personnel like a series of ever-changing moods to invoke all manner of emotions and plot scenarios. McGovern's real genius though is in the monologue, the finely modulated mutterings of one person to another or others in one big slice of boisterous bravado. The speeches he gives to Fitz are priceless for their insight, their wit, their construction, and flow. Like a Shakespeare for Scotland Yard, he can condense an entire case into a four-minute rumination that sings as it stings. McGovern also knows when to let silence do the evoking. He allows for quiet, reflective moments when Fitz or someone else is left to their own inner devices, maybe as they walk, perhaps with a drink in their hand. McGovern is the mastermind behind this masterwork of a show, and it's hard to imagine Cracker without his potent presence behind the typewriter.
All the episodes here are magnificent, flawlessly crafted, directed, and executed. To discuss them in detail would be to destroy some of the fun and friction found within each. It's safe to say that you've never seen a debut episode of any show as riveting and powerful as "The Mad Woman in the Attic." From its horrible slasher storyline to the brilliant co-starring turn of Adrian Dunbar as the mysterious amnesiac, this complex interlocking tale will have you guessing, wondering aloud, and applauding the outcome. Same with the second show. Some have called "To Say I Love You" as Sid and Nancy meets Bonnie and Clyde, and while both illusions are acceptable, this show really finds new and inventive ground for the couple caught in a web of murder and mutual affection dynamic. By the time the cop has become another helpless victim, you're not sure where this story will go next. And where it does is perhaps some of the most ingenious scripting in the series. But perhaps the single greatest moment in a terrific series is when the accused "homosexual child killer" of "One Day a Lemming Will Fly" finally comes clean to Fitz, asking him to share his burden (and threatening to hold him to it if he agrees). This plot twist is so unexpected, so dazzling and off-putting, that it makes you grin like a cheesy Cheshire from ear to ear, knowing you too have been taken in, worked like the characters in the show for the same shocking statement of superiority. It's interesting that, unlike American cop shows, which need to wrap up their cases in 46 minutes, Cracker will take 100 or 150 minutes to play out its hand. This makes the series like watching three individual movies with every one an absolute Oscar contender.
As for ancillary issues surrounding the show, the rest of the cast more than hold their own with Coltrane. Never once does he threaten to overpower or suppress them. Indeed, he seems to bring out their best, challenging them to rise to the high watermark he has set. Especially good are Barbara Flynn as Judith, Fitz long-suffering and newly emancipated wife. Flynn gives off the aura of knowing this man her whole life and yet discovering him anew each time they meet. She looks like she's carried the burden of Fitz forever, and upon realizing a moment of freedom (and weakness), she stumbles when considering going back to the safety of his size and his sentiments. Judith is just as complex as Fitz, and it's nice to see a male lead so evenly matched in his personal life. The other woman in Fitz's life is equally compelling, the Jeykll and Hyde policewoman, expertly created by Geraldine Somerville. This by-the-book cop is tough as nails on a case, but sweet and sexy in her home life. While many may flinch at her and Fitz's less than innocent flirtation, is makes for an interesting undercurrent to the show. As Fitz himself says, he is not the most attractive of men, and yet here are two women who find him more than fetching. Along with the male officers who all show multi-faceted features, we have a group of gifted performers who instantly sell us on Cracker's premise and never once do we question their craft.
To say this is a great show yet again is just stating the bloody obvious, Sybil. To say it looks crappy on DVD is to also state the same. Taking into account that most British film series have a flat, fuzzy look to them naturally and that their video standard is PAL while ours is NTSC and that these shows probably looked better upon initial broadcast than they do now and that ten years can really degrade an image, this still doesn't explain why Cracker looks so darn drab here on DVD. The transfer seems shoddy syndication quality and the color scheme is so dark and dreary that it's almost like watching a rainbow with the tint turned down. There must have been a better way to present this show, perhaps not a full-out remastery, but a new strike from original negatives or some manner of computerized correction. Just like the indistinct Dolby Surround offered, there is no visual feast to be had with this presentation of Cracker. It will fill your requisite need to see the show for all its enjoyable skill, but the uninteresting visual palette in the offing won't wow you. One could blame HBO or Granada, but they are in enough trouble as it is (see Rebuttal Witness).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Come on, HBO, throw us a bonus bone, will ya? Stop worrying about greenlighting crappy carnival crud and toss Coltrane a few quid so that he can discuss his work here. Or better yet, why not pay some respect to McGovern and let him comment on the episodes. If none of these participants wishes to wax poetic about their past perfection, then how about giving us some of the British or European made feature stories about the show? It's hard to imagine that something this super wasn't praised by someone, somewhere, for the media to capture. The step-through Coltrane bio is nice, but it doesn't begin to do this show justice. What about a "where are they now"? A preview of series two? Some manner of consumer congratulations for being a fan and picking up this set? Listen, no hard feelings, really. After all, you did give us a chance to own the set, so we should be grateful for small favors. But you wouldn't place the Mona Lisa in a tired old termite filled timber frame, would you? Give the same respect to this definitive show the way you would an old master and quit embarrassing yourself.
So there you have it, all flowery language and gilded lilies included. Cracker is a great show, one of the best in the history of British and American television. Go out and buy it today, find 364 available minutes in your otherwise dung filled viewing schedule, and let real talent, storytelling, and acting wash over you, cleansing your immortal soul of manufactured forced falderal. Become obsessed with Fitz and his fellow crime fighters as they uncover the seedy side in all of us. Worship at the Shrine of Coltrane and the Cathedral of McGovern. Realize that a cop show doesn't have to use words like "asshat" and "pussyfart" to make bold statements, nor do they have to show the bum of the overweight leading actor to infuse controversy into its premise. Cracker will be remembered years from now as a landmark creation. Get in on the ground floor before you look like a wanker, you pathetic poseur. But more important, simply enjoy great entertainment at its best. This will be the last time you hear it, so here is goes. Cracker is fantastic. Thus endeth the lesson.
Great show, superb acting, brilliant writing. Get out of my courtroom Cracker, you simply do no belong here. Not so fast HBO/Granada, we have a couple of issues to clear up. As for the count of crappy transfer quality? Guilty, ten years. As to the count of underachieving bonus material? Guilty, ten years. Now just say "ma-lord" and get out of my sight. Swine.
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Scales of Justice
• Biography of Robbie Coltrane
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