'Cracker' crackles with class rage

January 17, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- The "angry white male" is someone we've been hearing a lot about since the November election. He's become shorthand for explaining the sweeping conservative victory.

Unfortunately, like so many cultural phenomena, he's gone straight to the status of icon without much explanation of who or what he is. Until tonight, that is.

Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, the troubled forensic psychologist played by Robbie Coltrane in "Cracker," returns in a bril- liant exploration of white working-class rage and murder, titled "To Be Somebody," at 9 tonight on the Arts & Entertainment cable channel.

If you have never seen the British-import "Cracker" series on A&E, forget everything else you have planned for tonight and watch it. It is the richest and most compelling crime drama this side of "Prime Suspect." (On Sunday, the series won the top CableACE Award for best movie or miniseries; Coltrane won for best actor.)

The story of "To Be Somebody" is driven by the rage of a welder named Albie Kinsella (Robert Carlyle). Deeply disturbed by the death of his father, Kinsella goes on a murderous rampage, which is actually ignited by a simple disagreement with a shopkeeper over a newspaper and a tin of tea.

After the second murder, Fitz is called in to help the police catch Kinsella. But Fitz is again having more than enough trouble trying to keep his own life within shouting distance of sane.

Fitz is drinking too much, smoking even more, and his addiction to gambling results in his losing the first real bankroll he's had in years. Furthermore, his wife leaves him, his two kids think he's a loser and the woman to whom he turns for solace, and maybe sex, spurns him.

God, I love this guy. Coltrane plays Fitz as big, fat, angry, hip, weak, strong, foolish, wise, and always grinding metal against the guardrail between socially acceptable and out-of-control. One character calls him "an emotional rapist" tonight. She's right on the money.

But Fitz is a victim, too. He's the first member of his family to earn a college degree. Economically, his Ph.D. should lift him out of generations of working-class Fitzgeralds. But the emotional scars and baggage that he's collected on his upwardly mobile journey are killing him. Doctor, heal thyself; if only Fitz could.

The issues of social class are key to making the showdown between Fitz and Kinsella one of the most supercharged, you-can-almost-feel-them-sweat scenes you will see on television. Fitz has nearly as much rage as Kinsella, and it comes from pretty much the same place. If you thought the scenes in NBC's "Homicide" with Detective Frank Pemberton (Andre Braugher) questioning suspects were intense, wait until you see Fitz and Kinsella in the police interrogation room.

In fact, there are several points of comparison between "Cracker" and "Homicide." The British series is set in working-class Manchester, just as "Homicide" is set in Baltimore. And I don't know who came first, but Detective Jane Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville) is going to remind you a lot of Melissa Leo's character on "Homicide." Penhaligon is the woman Fitz turns to for solace tonight. The two have a delicious come-here/get-away history that crackles with sexual tension.

It's ironic, but not surprising, that it should take a British import to help American viewers understand the angry white male. In America, we don't deal with issues of social class on prime-time network television. We don't even deal with them to this degree in feature films, though on a superficial level Kinsella will remind some viewers of Michael Douglas in "Falling Down."

Perhaps the networks avoid dealing with class because, as a culture, we prefer believing the myth that we live in a classless society. In Britain, on the other hand, most of the best popular literature and drama since World War II comes under the heading of the Angry Young Man Movement, such as "Look Back in Anger."

At any rate, the translation is an easy one. What's important about the shopkeeper Kinsella kills is not that he's Pakistani, for example, but rather that he's a person of color. It's about race. And when it comes to Kinsella's passion for soccer, think NFL football and what it meant to Baltimore in the 1960s for the Colts to beat the team from New York.

But, most of all, sit back and savor Coltrane's fabulously flawed Eddie Fitzgerald. At one point, Fitz is asked why he's such a rude, obnoxious, sexist, drunken lout at times.

"I have a fear of being bored," he says belligerently.

I guarantee you: Bored is one thing you will never be by "Cracker."

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