In 1993, the BBC began airing Cracker, a crime procedural that I feel greatly influenced television series for at least 15 years after - and, no, I'm not just referring to ABC's abortive remake of the show. Just as Graendal and Wide Sargasso Sea were narratives from the point of view of a "villainous" figure, so too was this one of the first real anti-hero TV shows.
Cracker begins with Robbie Coltrane's Fitz Fitzgerald losing money on the horses he just bet on. We immediately cut to the same man delivering a University lecture in which he hurls books by famous psychologists and philosophers straight at the seats of the students assembled before him. He closes this bombastic intro by asking, “Moral. What’s the moral?...” Then he answers by telling the people listening that they have to study themselves and “the dark recesses” of their own souls – and that only then will they have found “the right time to open a book.”
But, like a lot of real-life professionals - let alone geniuses - Fitz is damaged and rotting from the inside, with devastating effects on the external world around him. He ignores his professional clients because he's distracted personally. He tries to get the police to listen to his opinions, disparaging the work of local colleagues who praise him to others. Hell, he tries to bum money from his own kids! But that's not all...
He’s a drunken loudmouth who pushes people’s buttons for no reason other than his own boozy unhappiness. He casually says things that makes his wife throw her drink in his face. He smokes in cabs with "No Smoking" signs, then leaves no tip. He constantly takes his problems out on the people around him, whether it’s family members or coworkers. He mortgages the house to cover his bets, and Mrs. Fitz leaves by the 18th minute of the first ep, saying that she wishes he were hooked on heroin!
The really interesting things about Cracker are easy to boil down. For one thing, it’s a pleasure to watch a TV series that is not about impossibly-attractive people. For another, the central crimes and mysteries are very interesting and well-executed. And last, the quality of the writing and acting is exceptional, making the developments very hard to not be drawn into.
While it is very common to have series with supremely-flawed protagonists - House, Dexter, - this one (a) came way earlier and (b) shows you that the “hero” is so amazingly-damaged that it’s impossible to ignore. Fitz drinks and gambles and cheats and risks losing his family regularly; he can’t – or won’t – help it. Moreover, the program embraced unique relationships without vilifying them (including homosexuality), and even tackled coworker-rape without ever playing it too easy for either the victim or the attacker.
One after the other, this series truly lives up to its premise by offering antagonists who are troubled in a way that only a fractured and smart protagonist could try to resolve. The “villains” are, refreshingly, people who have more going on than “rape women,” “kill my wife’s lover,” or “murder the prostitutes that I hire.” The stories behind these severely-messed-up cases are often very relatable, or poignant – Cracker is to be praised, then, for not selling them short.
In today’s crime procedurals, you never see a grown have an unfulfilled love affair with a teenage boy. You certainly never have the whole matter boil down, not to both of them being angry, murderous-types, but instead two people who simply want to be loved, yet don’t know how to go about it. You certainly don’t get many modern shows that provide a protagonist who solves the crime while speaking to the criminals in a way that underlines that he both understands and genuinely cares.
I wish I were exaggerating, but some of these antagonists have heart-breaking stories that truly leave you feeling conflicted about folks who are so screwed up that they commit cold-blooded murder. In one scenario, a deaf late-teen is addicted to a girl with astounding family problems. You sympathize at their every setback, even though they are killing people without any kind of proper justification. Cracker, more than any TV show I’ve seen before, will leave you torn.
And so, much like its “hero,” this BBC series is perfectly and steadily in the mindset of a smoky, boozy jazz song on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Nothing here, for better or worse, is going to change the world – just like Fitz isn’t suddenly going to lose 20+ pounds, lay off the cigs and liquor, or stop gambling. This program represents psychologically-themed Noir story-telling at its most gritty and naturalistic.
As with so many foreign TV programs, Cracker has only a handful of episodes per season. The characters – both “good” and “bad” – are well-developed, as each “case” takes at least two episodes to resolve. Things get messy all around - for Fitz’ home life, that of his closest police coworkers, or the murderers themselves. Life is hard, and this show never flinches from portraying that fundamental truth, whether it’s in a simple character beat, or a plot-driving catastrophe. It’s far from the most optimistic view of human existence, but at least it never feels artificial or candy-coated. In case you can’t tell, I think the show-runners should be very much praised for this.
It's hardly a wonder that this show could draw such a fine lot of actors. Robert Carlyle, Christopher Eccleston, Geraldine Somerville, and Ricky Tomlinson are among the regular and guest stars. This was truly an actors' showcase, providing almost everyone with something to do or say without feeling manufactured or cheaply-manipulative.
Cracker was ahead of its time and, through 23 fine episodes - as well as 2 (inferior) TV movies - it was a fine showcase for the acting skill of Coltrane, and the assorted cast members and guest stars. Though I like Cracker, the show and the protagonist - I pity anyone who could ever find themselves around the deeply-troubled and -hurt people that it portrays.
Cracker is available on Netflix, but you can also find episodes available freely and legally via Youtube. This UK series is highly recommended by me...