Britain's 'Cracker' is back, and it's crackerjack

June 11, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Eddie Fitzgerald says, easing into his first confession in 30 years. "I drink too much. I smoke too much. I gamble too much. I am too much."

Fitz is back. Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Robbie Coltrane), one of the most flawed and fascinating hero/anti-heroes in the history of television cop drama, returns on cable channel A&E tonight, and he's carrying around even more guilt, anger and existential angst than he did during last year's award-winning season of exquisite "Cracker" mysteries.

Enough guilt to lead him to the confessional, so that he might take communion at his poor mother's funeral in tonight's season premiere, titled "Brotherly Love." But not enough guilt for him to suffer the sanctimony of his old parish priest, whom Fitz angrily winds up accusing right there in the confessional of sleeping with prostitutes and murdering one of them to boot.

Fitz never did do contrition well. But what a pleasure it is to see him rage on against almost everything in his life.

Tonight will mark the start of "Cracker"s third season on A&E. Last year, the British import and its star both won the top CableAce awards here and the equivalent of the Emmy and the Oscar in England. Coltrane's Fitz is a psychologist in working-class Manchester who is regularly brought in by police on tough cases, because of his ability to get inside criminals' minds.

The only cop characters and dramas on American television that can hold a candle to Fitz and "Cracker" are Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) on "Homicide" and Andy Sipowitz (Dennis Franz) on "NYPD Blue." As on "Homicide," some of the best scenes on "Cracker" take place in the interrogation room when Fitz goes one on one with suspects, like Pembleton.

Unlike Pembleton, though, whose strength seems to come from his Jesuit-bred sense of righteousness and moral superiority to the criminals, Fitz is a fellow traveler down some of the darkest alleyways of the human heart with the men and women he questions.

"Cracker" goes into places no American cop drama does.

Tonight's episode begins four months after last season's

startling finale, which included the rape of Jane Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville), the young police inspector with whom Fitz had been having an affair since his wife, Judith (Barbara Flynn), moved out on him.

Penhaligon and Fitz are convinced Jimmy Beck (Lorcan Cranitch), a fellow detective in the squad room, raped her. The final image of last season's "Cracker" was Penhaligon standing over Beck with her gun stuck in his mouth, hammer cocked.

She didn't kill Beck, but he suffered a nervous breakdown following the incident. Tonight, Beck is released from the hospital and rejoins the police force, still denying that he raped her. Penhaligon and Fitz are hellbent on getting Beck to admit to the assault.

As if that story line didn't involve enough violence, the main police plot tonight is about the brutal murders of three prostitutes, which Penhaligon, Beck and Fitz wind up investigating.

The show carries a warning: "Due to the graphic depiction of the consequences of violence, viewer discretion is advised." But, whether it is the condition that the bodies of the prostitutes are found in or what is done to them during the autopsies, be doubly warned: You have seen nothing this intense or graphic on American network television. I think the level of violence is acceptable for cable within the context provided by screenwriter Jimmy McGovern ("Priest"), but there is definitely room for argument.

What is not debatable in terms of "Cracker" vs. American cop drama is the added dimension of social-class conflict that you get with the best of the Brits and how that enriches the drama. The subplot of the death of Fitz's mother takes us straight back into the suffocating, working-class world of his youth.

We are never allowed to forget for a moment in "Cracker" that Fitz and most of the cops he works with come from the working class. Furthermore, we are reminded that, in trying to earn a middle-class paycheck, some of them will die serving the interests of their upper-class, politician bosses -- not always in the name of law, order and justice.

American cop dramas almost never talk about such power relationships or the class conflicts that are at the root of the rage of a character like Sipowitz, on "NYPD Blue."

As cultural critic Benjamin DeMott puts it in his book, "The Imperial Middle," Americans "can't think straight about class because of the icon of classlessness" that dominates our popular culture.

Tonight's "Cracker" is all about power relations based on gender and class in the guise of sex and money -- ultimately, leading to death by suicide and murder.

If that sounds downbeat, that's probably because "Cracker" is decidedly downbeat by the standards of American television.

In that regard, maybe Fitz is "too much," as he confesses to the parish priest. But I can't get enough of him.

Police drama

What: Season premiere of "Cracker"

When: 9 tonight

Where: A&E

D8 Who: Robbie Coltrane as Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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