TV on DVD: Cracker -- The Complete Collection (10 DVD Set)

Own the Entire Award-Winning Series

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In the debut episode of the 25-time award-winning British ITV television series Cracker, the amnesiac prime suspect accused in a series of brutally bloody slice-and-dice killings tells the forensic criminal psychologist interviewing him that he is “the one who needs the psychologist.”

And sure enough, the man on the receiving end of this observation is one about which the audience has already most likely had similar thoughts just moments after we’re first introduced to Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane’s brilliant, arrogant, deeply flawed, yet fascinating character Dr. Edward Fitzgerald.

Known throughout the series as Fitz—series creator and mastermind Jimmy McGovern (Fitz’s real-life alter-ego) created a British police drama unlike anything else on the airwaves. Inspired by his disappointment with the cool overly procedural and detached Helen Mirren hit Prime Suspect--McGovern, who wanted to introduce a criminal psychologist to her series in the second season—instead centered an entire show around the individual he was determined to make just as seriously flawed and demon-plagued as those with whom he must analyze and interrogate.

While the terms “groundbreaking,” “genius,” and “visionary,” are thrown around fairly cavalierly in a buzz-fueled media where blurbs rule as opposed to insightful articulation-- in the case of Cracker, all three words are not only justified but demanded.

Sharing his belief that the show’s success was in its audacity to become what he feels “was the first post-feminist drama series,” which benefited from its frank tell-it-like-it-is characters since in the early ‘90s, “everyone was getting sick of political correctness,” so that “the timing couldn’t have been better,” McGovern’s unique blend of complex Edgar award-winning mystery storytelling and emphasis on the neuroses, emotions, and problems of its characters on both sides of the law made this Manchester set drama a critical smash.

An admitted hypocrite who reveals that he drinks, smokes, and gambles too much—correctly surmising that “I am too much”-- Fitz is the type of anti-hero from the days of Cagney and Bogart in the films he worships whose ability to size up anyone with whom he crosses paths in two minutes makes him not only invaluable in assisting the local police department but far too gifted for his own personal devices.

And as a result, whenever he’s unable to gamble with people’s lives by assisting the police, he tries to lose himself in risky backrooms gambling away his finances and unhealthily working towards a heart attack in a mess of a private life where his skills as “an emotional rapist,” hold everyone around him-- especially his long-suffering wife Judith captive.

In order to understand the criminal mind, Fitz eerily must put himself in the criminals' shoes, skin, and mind-- empathizing with them in ways that chill us to our very core as he discusses their thought processes and primal urges to help them crack. And in doing so, he argues in the first episode’s bravura opening, that instead of initially reaching for books on philosophy and psychology (which he violently hurls at a lecture hall filled with university students), you first must force yourself to explore the darkest recesses of your soul.

Further revealing that he’s rehearsed his father’s death without the satisfaction of an "opening night" numerous times, the guilt ridden extremely lapsed Catholic runs hot and cold on people—especially those closest to him in the series’ most effective relationship-- namely his initially professional but later flirtatious and romantic tinged partnership with Manchester Police Department’s sole female detective sergeant, Jane Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville).

Nicknamed “Panhandle"-- Jane’s character—much like Fitz’s is the underdog and outsider in the perpetual boys' club of the department and as the copper who is always sent to deliver bad news, it becomes her duty as well to perpetually chauffeur Fitz around from location to location where the two reach a chemistry that sizzles within the first season.

With highly complicated and shockingly brutal crimes that span multiple episodes (typically two to three) before reaching a resolution, each fifty minute episode is included in Acorn Media’s recent release of the entire collection of the show, only previously available from HBO.

A comprehensive set that includes the original first three seasons which aired from 1993 to 1995-- the ten-disc collection also includes two stand-alone feature length mysteries made a decade apart in 1996 and 2006 respectively, as well as a forty-five minute new retrospective, interview filled documentary.

Although the show also aired here in the states on A&E and BBC America and was also remade into a short-lived and poorly received American version starring Robert Pastorelli—each episode of UK's Cracker is so compelling that in my view they always moved far beyond the limitations of traditional television storytelling and work much better when viewed in mini-marathons to absorb all eleven addictive mysteries to best appreciate the nuances, red-herrings, and subtle ways that certain jokes and throwaway lines come back to haunt people in the most unexpected of ways.

While in America in the '90s, we were treated with high caliber police dramas such as NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street-- honestly, they pale in comparison to the gritty authenticity of Cracker. And moreover-- when viewing this show for the first time in 2009-- I’m amazed by how much I feel McGovern’s work has inspired some of our most effective and highly praised dramas featuring anti-heroes in such critically lauded shows as The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men, The Shield, Rescue Me, and House M.D. which all seem to be going for (most notably in the case of Tony Soprano) Fitz’s unique mixture of angel and devil that we alternately root for and shrink away from sometimes within the same five minutes.

From the first riveting episode directed by Michael Winterbottom(24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart) to the very last one helmed by Antonia Bird(Priest, Total Eclipse), the gritty urban noir hasn’t lost any of its ability to startle with some truly incredible cases including three that I found to be the series’ strongest: “One Day a Lemming Will Fly,” “Men Should Weep,” and “Brotherly Love,” all penned by Jimmy McGovern.

Ironically, as McGovern reveals, “Lemming” was the hardest episode he had to write since it was supposed to have been completed by a theatre writer who “handed in an appalling script,” leaving McGovern no alternative but to “write it from scratch in something like a week.” Centering on the case of a teenage boy found hanging in the woods—what begins with the appearance of a simple suicide grows into an incredibly complex murder investigation as witnesses come forward reluctantly, family members reveal some biases they’d had about their son, and Fitz pursues one strict line of inquiry and promises to share the suspect’s “burden,” if he confesses.

When a confession is offered and simultaneously Fitz and Panhandle’s relationship tentatively starts moving to another level, Fitz is dealt an ego-shattering blow that his fierce desire to be right may have blinded him to what really happened. Moreover, his hypocrisies are unearthed in a way that puts the master manipulator and smooth talker on the receiving end of some dead-on analysis of his own.

While it would’ve been extremely satisfying to offer a clear-cut resolution or follow up on this case, brilliantly yet maddeningly, McGovern stays with the emotions over the crime and leaves interpretations up to us as it moves towards the final credits.

In two of the most alternately upsetting yet shocking episodes—which following the death of one major character earlier on should’ve found us a bit more prepared—the crimes hit much closer to the station. In the first, as a serial rapist brings out the worst in some of the ensemble as “Men Should Weep,” leads into an extremely chilling yet unforgettable conclusion in “Brotherly Love” that uses the set-up of three episodes each to produce six hours of some of Cracker’s finest and most troubling television that leads to a turning point in the lives of every major character, including those no longer standing by the end.

Additionally, it’s equally compelling in some of the series’ most provocative tales including the fact-inspired Hillsborough Disaster case that moved into a startling look at blue collar white male angst and culture clash fueled prejudice as Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle’s troubling motive “To Be a Somebody” results in the death of one of Manchester’s finest and guest star Liam Cunningham’s closeted homosexual tendencies are tested when he falls for a troubled, seventeen year old orphan in “Best Boys,” which—similar to “True Romance” and “To Say I Love You”—illustrates the twisted lengths people go to for love.

While when the series as we knew it ended with “True Romance,” from McGovern’s replacement writer Paul Abbott (State of Play), eventually and most likely due to popular demand, Fitz returned in a mediocre but entertaining special entitled “White Ghost” in ’96 and once again in a collaboration with McGovern a decade later for the politically charged “A New Terror.”

And while they’re both adequate, “A New Terror,” especially feels like a major let-down in comparison to the original series. Likewise, despite the fact that the opportunity to watch Coltrane in any episode as Fitz is better than the alternative-- in my opinion, the show only worked to the best degree in its original three season run heyday in what is arguably England’s best contemporary police drama created thus far.

Packaged in a compact box with a DVD holder book that keeps all ten discs including the great 45 minute interview (unfortunately missing Geraldine Somerville) in accessible slide in “pages,” thankfully it also boasts subtitles and/or closed captioning on every episode for the deaf and/or hearing impaired which you’ll find yourself especially grateful for the opportunity to read Fitz’s lines when the drunken Scottish monologues slur together occasionally in order to savor every word.

A riveting series with Coltrane’s tour-de-force in a role that will make you view his Potter alter-ego Hagrid in an entirely new light—for mystery lovers and fans of whip smart, provocatively written dramas, you’ll definitely want to help yourself to this particular Cracker.