It's not an alt-rock band singing about holes in the head. It's not a suitable accompaniment for cheese. Judge Bill Gibron says it's the best TV crime drama ever.
Our reviews of Cracker: Series 1 (published December 18th, 2003), 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.
Cracker is the best television crime drama ever…thus endeth the lesson.
It is recommended that you go back and read the review of Series 1, featured here on the Verdict, to understand the comments that are about to be fostered regarding Series 2 of Cracker, the greatest contribution to television ever offered by the BBC. In a nutshell, we know that our main character, the psychologist case "cracker" Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Robbie Coltrane, the Harry Potter films) is still helping the local Manchester police solve crimes. Throughout the course of Series 1, Fitz's marriage has been rocky, and he's had an on-again, off-again flirtation with Sergeant Jane "Panhandle" Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville). The two had even planned on taking a holiday together, but at the last minute, Fitz's wife Judith (Barbara Flynn) returned home, hoping to make their relationship work. Fitz's "standing up" of Penhaligon has resulted in the beginning of the downfall of both their personal and professional affiliation.
Deputy Chief Inspector David Bilborough (Christopher Eccleston) has also had a falling-out with Fitz over his handling of a recent crime (the "Lemming" case) and so has turned to Deputy Sergeant Jimmy Beck (Lorcan Cranitch) for both friendship and investigative police work. In addition, a new officer, DC Bobby Harriman (Colin Tierney) is causing Bilborough a lot of problems, making rookie mistakes and lapses in judgment. There is a great deal of underlying tension between the fellow officers, as many in the unit feel Penhaligon and Fitz have gotten far too "close" to be objective. With this dynamic in mind, Series 2 picks up a few months after Series 1 ends. The cases and personal conflicts addressed are as follows:
• "To Be a Somebody": After the death of his father, a young man named Albie Kinsella (Robert Carlyle, The Full Monty) kills a Pakistani shop owner. A witness reports seeing a "skinhead" leaving the scene, and racial tensions begin to flare up. The criminal motive and all the police efforts therefore concentrate on this bigoted faction of disaffected British youth. But Fitz feels the killer is not motivated by prejudice, but by something deeper. Too bad DCI Bilborough won't let him on the case. When more bodies turn up and tragedy strikes the force, it is up to the remaining members of the unit—with Fitz's input—to track and catch this cold-blooded executioner.
On the homefront: Fitz and his wife are trying to patch things up. Judith has decided to bare all of Fitz's foibles with good-natured understanding. But the fallout from the failed holiday trip with Penhaligon has left almost all of Fitz's personal affairs in horrible disarray…or completely destroyed.
• "The Big Crunch": A religious faction, far outside the traditional church, has been recruiting students from a nearby school through its enigmatic headmaster (and charismatic cult leader) Kenneth Trant (Jim Carter). When a young girl is found naked and covered in arcane, ritualistic drawings, it is up to Fitz to figure out the connection between the child, her new church, and the charming, compelling minister. But what Fitz discovers may imply a conspiracy and a pattern of near-pedophilia that taints everything about Trant's so-called sacred beliefs.
On the homefront: Judith has left for good, and Fitz seeks to rekindle his flirtation with Penhaligon. But Fitz's teenage son Mark hates these new twists in his family dynamic, and Fitz's young daughter feels abandoned and angry.
• "Men Should Weep": A serial rapist named Floyd Malcolm (Graham Aggrey) is terrorizing Manchester. His MO is rather straightforward—he wears a mask, sexually defiles his victims, and then tries to talk with them, as if they have now developed a post-assault romantic bond. After calling Fitz on his radio talk show, the criminal kills his next victim. And when someone close to the psychologist finds herself a victim of a sex crime, the stakes are raised even higher. Can Fitz discover the offender's identity? Or are even more of his friends and family in jeopardy?
On the homefront: Judith returns home with a big surprise. Fitz must cut off his relationship with Penhaligon, who is hurt and grows even more hardened toward issues of love, sex, and society.
Cracker is a fantastic show. Don't believe it? Again, go back to the review of Series 1 and read for yourself. There is nothing more to be said about the series in general that wouldn't be repeating the sentiments contained therein. If anything, Series 2 surpasses the first go-around as it fleshes out the characters, breaks even more conventions, jeopardizes several of the supporting cast, and further redefines the world of broadcast police stories. Indeed, the most miraculous thing about Cracker is that it actually gets you involved in a television show like it was an obsession. Take the first syllable of the title, and that's what watching this program is like. You are instantly spellbound, sad when a segment is over, and immediately settle in for the next installment. Jimmy McGovern's (the best writer for television since Chayefsky and Serling) genius is understanding what makes people and circumstances inherently dramatic. He (along with his fellow writer Ted Whitehead, who penned "The Big Crunch" in this Series) instinctually knows where to take a narrative, when to stop and catch a theatrical or insightful breath, and how to turn on the terror and apprehension with full force. Cracker never disappoints as a work of literary excellence. Come to think of it, the show never disappoints, period.
Cracker is also dangerous television theater. It challenges you every step of the way. It applies tired, cliché crime scenarios (rapists, serial killers, egomaniacal cult leaders) and whips them into a shape you've never seen before. It's interesting to note how the felonious acts committed in Cracker are not the important part of the show. Sure, they can provide their own entanglements and unpredictable payoffs, but Cracker excels because it uses those antisocial moments to tell us something broader and more meaningful about the life experience in total. We don't ever really care for the motive behind their murderous or miscreant madness. What we relish is how Fitz himself goes about exposing the subject's inner self; the wild and uncontrolled Id; the sad and subservient Ego; the completely craven Super-Ego. These existential exchanges, these quid pro quos between doctor and devil, are the backbone of Cracker and take the series in directions never before imagined by the small screen. When you describe to someone that Cracker is the best police show ever to not have wall-to-wall action, but instead relies totally on dialogue and character study to seal its drama, there will probably be a glint of disbelief in their eyes. But it's true. Television doesn't get any better than this.
Individually, Series 2 is made up of one standout storyline after another. "To Be a Somebody" subverts the standard mass murderer/profiler parameters to say something very sad and very eloquent (even Fight Club-ish) about the state of working class white males in Britain. Leave it to the English to handle the subject of racism and retaliation with sincerity and a real sense of understanding. "The Big Crunch" (which, again, represents the first show to not be penned by teleplay titan/series creator Jimmy McGovern) takes the tiniest step back from Cracker's usual smart and atypical route. It offers a basic, if still brilliant, story of cult activity (and sexual politics) gone completely astray. The final installment in Series 2, "Men Should Weep" is a set-up of near-Shakespearean proportions for the final tragedies of Series 3 that will affect every single cast member differently. It says a great deal about the show's creative mindset that it is willing to controvert beloved characters and concrete personalities to say something far more intense, introspective, and gratifying about the world of police work, personal flaws, and careerism.
Indeed, Cracker can be looked at like a terrific, tantalizing trilogy, a Lord of the Rings of the small screen. It has the same emotional and artistic scope as Peter Jackson's Middle Earth epic without any of the CGI ceremony. Far more ambitious than a mere weekly series, a season is really three 100- to 150-minute movies, all of them absolute blockbusters. Purchasing Series 1-3 will give you the entire Cracker experience up to 2004, where it has just been announced that Coltrane and McGovern have agreed to another two-hour special (rumored to surround a 9/11-style terrorism story).
About the only downside to owning the entire series on DVD from HBO is said company's desire to squander any chance at beneficial, contextual extras. Series 1 had a Coltrane biography. Series 2 has nothing. Argh! At least the image is improved over Series 1's awful, grainy full-frame-fest. Series 2 looks cleaner, sharper, and newer, and crackles with colorful details that the first go-around apparently couldn't achieve. The sound is typical Dolby Digital stereo and perfectly acceptable. Frankly, with a show this great, a basic collection of episodes is all one needs. Cracker can't be praised enough. It is one of the pinnacles of the performing arts.
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