Greatness is a relative term. For everyone who champions a person, place or thing as being the best ever, or among the classics of all time, there will legitimately be another who scoffs and shuffles away in mild disbelief. It used to be, oh once upon a time, that we as a group were a populace of aesthetic conformists: a sheep to the shearing shed slack jawed yokel legion blindly agreeing with what "the norm" said was the ginchiest. If the Internet has done one thing (and it's not necessarily a "good" thing), it has given every Tom, Dick and Harry Knowles an opportunity to praise their own perculiarized preferences. A billion critics sitting at a billion typewriters for a billions hours (but only with one deadline and a couple of T-1 connections, mind you) could wax poetic and powerful about the relevance and majesty of a movie like 2001 and someone with too much caffeine and not enough film history in their head hole will write a grammatically suspect soap box blasting of said "so-called" timeless classic (usually adding anime and James Cameron sub-references throughout). People can be purposeful mixers, intending to rock the boat so as to be the individual or entity known for that attribute (and maybe nothing else). But at a certain point, all the automatic nay-saying has to stop and a complete consensus has to be reached. The British television series Cracker, which ran from 1993 to 1995 and featured the inimitable talents of Robbie Coltrane, is the producer of such artistic accord. Within its three 'seasons' – in the UK, TV is divided into "series" – and 23 episodes (and a one-off two-hour movie special) there resides the greatest, most monumental achievements in the history of the televisual medium. Period.
In these three final "cases" for our formidable forensic psychologist, Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, there are considerable professional and personal issues at play, situations and circumstances that will alter lives forever. The Manchester Police department has been rocked by loss and internal strife. Jane Penhaligon has been left jaded and immensely hurt by what has befallen her. Jimmy Beck, another officer in the squad, has spent the last four months in a "rests home" trying to recover from what happened to his best friend and boss, DCI Bilborough. With DCI Wise in Bilborough's place, the relationship between Fitz and law enforcement is further strained. Making matters worse, Fitz is about to become a father. His pregnant wife Judith is hoping to use the child as a means of patching up their floundering relationship. Among all this chaos, we witness the following sinister situations:
"Brotherly Love": Against the backdrop of death and birth, Fitz must figure out how a suspect, David Harvey, arrested for the killing of one prostitute, can be tied to two other similar crimes committed while Harvey was in custody.
"Best Boys": A scandalous relationship between a teenage boy and an older man turns deadly when the duo goes on the run, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Fitz must try and stop the spree before more innocent people are killed.
"True Romance": When a fanatical admirer of Fitz twists her affection into serial murder, the psychologist must track down the identity of the perverted paramour before she takes out her dismissal on Fitz's family.
Fellow DVD Talk critic John Sinnott handled the release of the first two series of Cracker for this website, and there is not much more that can or could be added to his insightful and accurate comments. Cracker is indeed a fantastic show, a highly recommended addition to any DVD collection. For the uninitiated, Cracker does produce quite a few "where have you been all my life moments" ; instances where the formulas and laziness of most television crime shows are tossed in the waste bin to allow actual human drama to unfold right before our eyes. The genius stroke here is having affable goof Robbie Coltrane, known more for his comedy than his serious roles, become the unbearable, egomaniacal and exceptionally brilliant forensic psychologist able to break suspects and cases wide open with nothing more than his big, fat brain. But this is not CSI in the British Isles or UKPD Blue. Cracker celebrates the joys of intelligence, the amazing attributes of articulation and the electricity of a cracking quid pro quo. For many, a first look at the series will showcase a lot of talking heads spewing sustained speeches of exposition and character. But beneath the surface of such loquacious leanings lies the energy and invention of Cracker. It thrills because its ideas, not its incidents, get under the skin and spread.
Series 1 is about as perfect as broadcast television can get, filled with such evocative writing and amazing performances that you can hardly believe that something this special could come from the mind of a typical TV writer. But Jimmy McGovern is not a archetypal show scribe and his Cracker is nothing short of Shakespearean in its scope and splendor. You can see the Series begin to buckle, if only at the most infinitesimal, sub-atomic level, once McGovern turns over some of the writing duties to Ted Whitehead (Series 2 "The Big Crunch") and, more significantly, Paul Abbot (Series 3 "Best Boys", "True Romance" and the bonus 2-hour movie "Lucky White Ghost"). While Jimmy is at the helm, Cracker holds its own among the classic tragedies and character studies of traditional literature. The three Series together create a brilliant, operatic storyline, worthy of the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Viewed individually, they entertain in a cliffhanger capacity that makes you long for what came before and since (even in the initial Series, you immediately find yourself wondering "where did this guy come from and what made him this way?") So, perhaps, the best way to experience Cracker is to go out and purchase all three DVDs (a rental will simply be a waste of money for what you will already be aching to buy once you've seen it) and watch them consecutively. In doing so, you will witness one of the greatest 23 hour movies ever conceived, a rich tapestry of heroics and foibles made flesh by some of the most compelling characters ever created.
Now this may sound like hyperbole on a supernova-like level, a celebration based in blind love for a show that is really no more than a slick piece of excellent entertainment. But that is simply not true. McGovern and his creative associates manage something with Cracker that few shows ever attempt: they build a complete world working within its own metaphysical and philosophical dynamics and then populate it with people who challenge and try to change that ideology. Maybe it's the Manchester setting, about as far away from America and its police profile parameters as an uninitiated citizen can get. Or it could be the more metropolitan culture of Britain, with its cityscape circumstances and public house patronage. But perhaps the real reason why the universe of Eddie Fitzgerald feels at once foreign and yet familiar to us is because it is one based in steadfast human belief. All the characters in Cracker have their honored ethics and try like the Devil to stick by them. But McGovern and the others constantly challenge their beliefs, allowing the drama to flow directly out of the reaction and rectification to such tests. Cracker therefore is a show about having all the answers until the situation actually arises. Then it's time to put your moxie where your mouth is. The level of accomplishment towards this task is at the heart of the show's splendid shape and subtext.
If there is a pinnacle to Cracker, a single episode that concentrates everything that the show stands for into a single installment of 50 mesmerizing minutes, it would have to be part three of "Brotherly Love". To give too much away about what happens would be criminal, but let's just say that it's the culmination of a myriad of storylines; a strange amalgamation of vengeance and sadness mixed with the complexities of every character in the series to boggle and befuddle your mind in a manner befitting Cracker's brilliance. It's hard to imagine a better run of shows than the installments that make up McGovern's "Love", but Paul Abbott gives it a shot and his two storylines here. They really expand and extend the Cracker hierarchy. The most magnificent aspect of "Best Boys" is the manner in which the affair between the teen boy and the older man is handled. In America, this near pedophilia-ish, mostly platonic plot thread would require some ancillary scenes where a "specialist" discusses the "rationale" for such an "abnormal" relationship. It would be excusing the behavior before we even knew if it was actually occurring. In Cracker, it's just another characteristic of the plot, a logical extrapolation of interpersonal interaction. Frankly throughout the course of its run, this series has always handled homosexuality with a maturity and normalcy that shames most US broadcast buffoonery.
With the final (to date) Manchester based offering "True Romance", we see the tired template of an obsessed fan/serial killer work wonderfully because it makes Fitz confront his anti-social sensibilities and confess to his personal idiosyncrasies. Instead of distancing the investigator from the investigated, the two become so intertwined that to witness how Fitz eventually removes himself from the circumstance highlights what is best about this bravura entertainment. The fact that we can feel one iota of sorrow or pity over Eddie Fitzgerald and his egomaniacal manipulation of the entire human race speaks volumes to Cracker as a concept and Robbie Coltrane as an actor. Good old Hagrid from Harry Potter (along with dozens of other roles) really elevates this series by making his characterization of Fitz inexcusably arrogant and self-centered. Trading on his size to show the emotionally "small" man within, Coltrane gives his cad a core of goodness that manifests itself at inopportune moments and a steely determination that can occasionally blind him to the truth. There has never been a more complex and craven center to a supposed heroic cop show than Eddie Fitzgerald. And that's because an old Greek ideal of what a "hero" is (a superman with a fatal flaw) makes up the heart of Cracker's concept. Along with the rest of the cast, this is television at its finest, and there is nothing subjective about said statement.
Cracker is only ten years old and yet it looks several decades old on the HBO release of the series on DVD. Perhaps it's because the original source material fails to translate over into Region 1 technical specs (PAL vs. NTSC you know). Maybe UK vaults fail to properly protect their prints the way US or other country's cinematic crypts do. Whatever the reason, Cracker is filled with grain and occasional contrast flaws that take away from the otherwise acceptable 1.33:1 full frame image.
Cracker's use of Dolby Digital Stereo is adequate, not earthshaking. This is not a show attempting to immerse you in a world of police interrogations and personal rants. The aural aspects are clear, crisp and occasionally quite moody. Cracker does use excellent theme and ancillary music, sprinkling its soundtrack with incredibly evocative ambiance. But most importantly, the voices and dialogue are always at the forefront and featured in a crystalline approach.
When it came to bonuses, Series 1 had a small, insignificant biography of Robbie Coltrane. Series 2 was completely devoid of any extra material. Thankfully, HBO did every fan of this show a tremendous favor. They feature the only post-series Cracker offering to come out of the rabid fandom for the show as a supplement to the set. It is easy to imagine another distributor, looking to milk the moneymaking merchandising machinery, releasing this special edition of Cracker on its own DVD. "Lucky White Ghost" is a two-hour TV movie that follows Fitz to Hong Kong, where he helps the police - completely suspect of his techniques - resolve a high-profile murder. The only other familiar cast member from the series is DCI Wise, the once formidable but now only foolish commander of the Manchester police. Some Cracker purists believe that "Lucky White Ghost" is a low point in the Cracker mythos, 100 minutes of missed opportunities minus everything that made the series proper exceptional entertainment. This is not really true. Sure, "Lucky White Ghost" suffers from the single storyline syndrome, a hemmed-in ideal that doesn't allow for a lot of the usual Cracker creativity and confrontations to coalesce. But Coltrane is still wonderful and the plot is several notches above the typical TV movie fodder. In contrast to other cop dramas, this is incomparable stuff. But it's hard for even 2nd tier Cracker to compete with the original series itself.
How much praise is too much? How many times can you dip into the well of admiration and come back with still clever ways of calling something spectacular, a rare treat in the annals of entertainment? Cracker can reduce even the most jaded critic to sputtering moments of repetition. It conforms to the old mandate that something exceptionally good is much harder to write about than something incredibly repugnant. The land of the laudatory is much more treacherous for a critic's credentials than the valley of the shadow of cinematic shite, where no exaggeration is too extreme. Just let it be said, in as simple a manner as possible, that Cracker is the best that television can get, and be done with it. Over eight years since it went off the air and it's still finding new fans, individuals who stumble across its brilliance and wonder who they pissed off to deprive them of such joy. And now there is talk of a Cracker comeback, another one-off movie (supposedly centering around a 9/11 theme) that, if successful, could lead to another series. Jimmy McGovern is on board and Robbie Coltrane has said 'yes', so it looks like Fitz will be swaggering with wounded self-assurance once again. And this critic understands what needs to be done. It's time to crack open the thesaurus and work on the sycophantic remarks. Because if the new Cracker is only half as good as the old Cracker, the need for extensive commendation will require a whole new vocabulary of wonderment. Cracker is the best television police show ever. As Fitz would say, "thus endeth the lesson."
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