Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees still doesn't know what this title means, but after watching the series, she is numb with apathy.
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 Collection (published March 18th, 2009) are also available.
Mind over murder.
"Cracker is the greatest episodic crime series ever." That's what my colleague Judge Bill Gibron wrote about the British detective series starring Robbie Coltrane.
I won't be saying that, or anything like it, about its American remake.
Facts of the Case
In a city like Los Angeles, the police need all the help they can get in tracking down the often twisted criminals who prey on the innocent (and the not so innocent). Enter Dr. Gerry "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Robert Pastorelli, Murphy Brown), a psychologist with peculiar insight into the criminal mind. Fitz's ability to create profiles of killers from scant evidence makes him invaluable to the police force, even though he sometimes butts heads with Lieutenant Fry (R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket).
His professional virtuosity, however, is belied by the disaster he has made of his personal life. His wife Judith (Carolyn McCormick, Law & Order) has moved out, weary of his addictions to drinking and gambling, and devastated by the revelation that he had an affair with his colleague Lt. Hannah Tyler (Angela Featherstone, Con Air). His relationship with his teenaged son (Josh Hartnett, Pearl Harbor) is strained, and a new baby hasn't brought harmony into the household.
Over the course of the 16 episodes in the series, Fitz struggles to rebuild his marriage—and/or his romantic relationship with Tyler—at the same time that he uses his powers of insight to snare a procession of vicious murderers.
It's only fair to warn my readers right away that it's impossible for me to contemplate the American Cracker series without contrasting it with its far superior British prototype. But even if I had never seen any of the original series, I doubt that I would find this remake very gripping. The writing for Fitz is sometimes quite good (most often when it's cut and pasted from its parent series), as are some of the performances. Carolyn McCormick, for example—familiar to television audiences from many appearances as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet in the Law & Order franchise—is perfectly cast as Fitz's strong-willed, intelligent, long-suffering wife. But the majority of the elements here are flimsy: episodes that fall into the same pattern, a musical score that is too portentous and heavy-handed, characters and performances that cling wearily to convenient stereotypes. Not to mention some of the most idiotic police work I've seen on a TV show: In episode after episode, the police and Fitz seize on a single suspect and willfully ignore all other avenues of investigation, no matter how obvious to the viewer. One case that ended on what was supposed to be a devastating "we'll never know who did it!" revelation frustrated me because the blazingly obvious suspect(s) had never even been considered. Time and again the characters—or at least the scripts—also make jarring leaps in logic. Where actual police work is concerned, this show is often laughably bad.
The stupidity extends to Fitz, and that's probably the worst blunder. We are supposed to respond to his character because, even though he's a mess of a human being, he is a genius at his work. Unfortunately, most of the time he is pitting his genius against an innocent person. Just about every episode builds up to a scene where he goes one on one with a suspect or witness and bludgeons them with words, confronting them with an excruciating picture of their personal hangups and freakish desires. The fact that he is almost always wrong always seems to escape everyone's notice. I suppose it's possible that he feels that something useful may result from his badgering even if it's directed at the wrong person, but only in one episode is there the suggestion that this is a deliberate tactic. No, I think we're supposed to believe that Fitz is brilliant—as the original Fitz was—and instead he comes off as an arrogant blowhard who likes to bully people. (And where are these suspects' lawyers during this verbal abuse? Another logical gaffe.)
I suspect that this problem is due not just to the writing but to the casting. In theory, Robert Pastorelli seemed like a promising choice: He has an unconventional charisma and is convincing as a man who is prey to many vices. All too convincing, in fact, when one recalls his death last year of a heroin overdose. I was prepared to enjoy his take on Fitz as a flawed but fascinating antihero. Instead I found that he simply irritated me. I understand that Fitz is not necessarily a character we are supposed to like, but as viewers we certainly ought to find his company worthwhile. Perhaps other viewers will respond differently; indeed, I hope they will. For the actor's sake, I would hate for one of Pastorelli's few major showcases to dwindle into complete obscurity. He does embody his version of Fitz with gusto and conviction, and his feats of memory alone demand respect: in each episode he has to deliver a huge amount of dialogue (and monologue) and make it seem spontaneous.
Unfortunately, Pastorelli's supporting cast gives him little assistance. As Lt. Fry, R. Lee Emery is totally out of place; it's clear every time he opens his mouth that his natural milieu is the military, not the police department. Late in the series Fry is replaced by the younger and slicker Lt. Macy, who is much better suited to the setting, but he only gets three episodes in which to make his mark. As Hannah Tyler, Frost's colleague and former lover, Angela Featherstone gives a largely colorless performance. Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order: SVU appears as the token gal cop in part one of the pilot episode, then vanishes, never to be heard from again—more's the pity, since she has far more presence than Featherstone. The rest of the policemen are the standard stereotypes. Josh Hartnett does turn in a restrained yet convincing performance as Fitz's oldest son, Michael, and some of the guest actors are memorable as well, especially Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Oz) as an amnesiac. On the whole the acting covers a range from hammy to good.
All of this show's weaknesses reflect a falling off from its parent series. Where Pastorelli's Fitz is often grating, Fitz as portrayed by Robbie Coltrane (familiar to Americans as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) is always stimulating company. There's never any doubt that his Fitz is brilliant—and we can understand why both Judith and Hannah would be attracted to him, despite his unprepossessing physical appearance and sometimes abrasive behavior. Where the characters are one-dimensional in the American series, they are often astonishingly complex in the British show. Even the change in location from a gritty industrial city (Manchester, England) to a glossy, sunlit place like L.A. was a misstep that undermined the necessarily bleak tone.
When you compare episodes from the original series that were remade for the American series, it's easy to see other places where things went wrong. Take "To Say I Love You," remade as "'Tis Pity She's a Whore." What was originally a complex three-part episode about a young couple on a killing spree is condensed into one 45-minute episode, and as a consequence the characters are underdeveloped, the plot unfolds at dizzying speed, and the story is softened. Whereas in the original the female half of the murderous duo was played memorably by Susan Lynch (From Hell) as a chillingly self-assured and amoral woman, who in one scene lures a naïve cop to his death with the promise of sex, her American counterpart is a vulnerable kid, the victim of a sleazy cop's harassment. When Fitz breaks her in his interrogation, it's a feeble victory because she never had any defenses in the first place, unlike her cunning British prototype. This is just one example of the way story lines from the British series that could have been provocative and powerful are rushed through, watered down, and just plain lobotomized for the American version. By the time Robbie Coltrane himself makes a guest appearance as a suspect in the final episode, it comes off not as an homage to the original series but as an insult.
Interested viewers will find it easy to make this kind of comparison, since the case insert with episode summaries indicates which episodes are remakes from the original series. That will be handy for taking to the video store when you go looking for the original Cracker (and I urge you to do so rather than watching this inferior imitation). For better or worse, this case insert is the sole extra for the set. Visual quality is what one would expect from a relatively recent television show; the full-frame picture is adequately clean and crisp, but probably little better than its original broadcast. The 2.0 surround audio track is disappointing, with dialogue isolated in the center, the rear speakers being used sparingly for ambient sounds and musical scoring. Thus, although dialogue is always clear, the aural landscape never has any oomph.
I've been a bit rough on this series, I know. But it's aggravating to see such a comedown from its terrific antecedent. (For more on the British series, see the reviews linked in the sidebar.) That being said, those who are unfamiliar with the original series may be able to appreciate the good points of this one; its premise, after all, is still a sound one. If you're a Cracker newbie and are curious about the American series, a rental is the way to go. Or, for better writing and more consistently strong acting, just save your money and look for reruns of the first few seasons of Law & Order, especially those with Carolyn McCormick. Those who have seen the original Cracker…heck, are you even still reading this review? Go buy the Robbie Coltrane series if you haven't already. You'd be crazy not to, and that's my professional opinion.
Hung jury. The court declares a mistrial.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tango Entertainment
• Episode Guide (Case Insert)
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