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Reviewed by Will Harris
obbie Coltrane has had himself a plum gig since 2001, playing the half-giant known as Hagrid in the “Harry Potter” films. But while that might be the role which Americans first mention to him when they pass him in the street (provided they recognize him when he’s not sporting a beard), there’s a more than middling chance that your average Brit will see him and be tempted to shout, “Fitz!”
If you’ve never seen Coltrane in his role as criminal psychologist Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald, there’s no better time to familiarize yourself, given that Acorn Media’s new set, “Cracker: The Complete Collection,” offers up all 11 of Fitz’s adventures. He’s not exactly the most loveable character to grace your TV screen – he drinks and smokes too much, has a nasty gambling addiction, has been known to cheat on his wife, and has a foul temper – but it’s these traits that make him imminently watchable, if only because you’re never quite certain when he might self-destruct.
A show like “Cracker” is one that can prove to be the bane of a TV critic’s existence. Not only is it so good that you actually want to watch every single episode before you write your appreciation of the series, but it’s also one where creator Jimmy McGovern moves his characters through their lives with the precision of a master chess player shifting his pieces on the board. During the course of these stories, they evolve in a slow but gradual fashion, so that you’re always fascinated and can’t help but stayed transfixed. And we’re not just talking about the good guys. The multi-chapter nature of “Cracker” allows the criminals to emerge as more than mere pencil-sketch versions of villainy.
Take Robert Carlyle’s character in “To Be a Somebody,” for instance, who explodes in rage after an unfortunate encounter with a Pakistani shopkeeper, goes home and shaves his head, then returns to slay the man. The police are convinced it’s nothing more than a simple racism-related murder, but it turns out to be far more complicated, which we learn over the course of the trio of episodes. Or how about “To Say I Love You,” where a young man’s speech impediment and his desire for love manages to lead him down a path of murder? The crimes within “Cracker” are complicated, but rather than whipping through them in an hour’s time, McGovern takes his time in unraveling the complex realities surrounding them.
And yet, there are often moments within “Cracker” where the criminal activity seems secondary to the development of the regular characters. Fitz’s family life is a regular focus, with his wife Judith (Barbara Flynn) torn between continuing to endure her husband’s faults and wanting to finally free herself from having them tie her down; his son, Mark (Kieran O’Brien), is already going through his rebellious teen years, so watching his father act in such an irresponsible manner and hurt his mother certainly doesn’t help his attitude any. Meanwhile, Fitz is falling for a member of the police force – Detective Sergeant Jane "Panhandle" Penhaligon, played by Geraldine Somerville – and their relationship is a complicated one, with Fitz inevitably managing to screw it up just as much as he’s done with his marriage. Other major players in the police force are DS Jimmy Beck (Lorcan Cranitch), who often ignores Fitz’s advice on cases just because he doesn’t like him, and – who’s this? – a young Christopher Eccleston as Detective Chief Inspector David Bilborough. The storylines of Bilborough and Beck dovetail in an unfortunate fashion, but it’s not nearly as shocking as how Beck and Penhaligon’s tales end up tying together.
If you had to pick the signature “Cracker” tale, it’d definitely be the aforementioned “To Be a Somebody,” but the episode that will leave you forever in awe of Coltrane’s abilities as an actor is “Brotherly Love,” where the death of Fitz’s mother leads to a reunion between him and his brother. The tears flow freely between the characters in this one, and the effect will likely prove contagious to the viewer.
The only real trouble with “Cracker” is that, for such an incredible series, it ends with a whisper rather than a scream. After nine multi-chapter tales, there are two specials. The first, “White Ghost,” takes Fitz on a trip to Hong Kong, where the only other member of the ensemble besides Coltrane makes an appearance. The second, “Cracker: A New Terror,” was the return of Fitz after a ten-year absence from British television screens, and although it brings McGovern back to write the character he created, the post-9/11 storyline collapses into a diatribe against American politics, leaving us with not nearly enough time for Fitz to just be Fitz. It has some fine moments, particularly when it becomes evident that Fitz still prefers his work to his family, but overall it’s a disappointing return for such a great character.
Even with these last two chapters being less than spectacular, there’s no denying that “Cracker: The Complete Collection” remains an absolute must-own. A few duff episodes doesn’t change the fact that it’s still one of the best crime dramas ever made.
Special Features: There’s only just one, but it’s a good ‘un. “Cracker: Behind the Scenes” celebrated the return of “Cracker” to the airwaves after almost a decade’s absence by taking an extensive look – well, okay, a 45-minute look – back at the history of the franchise. Though it lacks interviews with the majority of the series’ regular cast, they do manage to get various folks from behind the scenes (including creator Jimmy McGovern), as well as Coltrane, Flynn, and even Eccleston, to contribute new talking-head recollections of their “Cracker” experiences. It might be a lonely bit of bonus material, given that it’s the only inclusion on this ten-disc set, but it’s still very much a must-see.