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New York Times Television Reviews

 

The Notion of Murder as the Way to a Man's Heart
By John J.O'Connor

 

Puffing on still another cigarette, Robbie Coltrane's Fitz, easily the most offbeat murder-mystery hero of recent seasons, makes a characteristically nose-thumbing exit from the British series ''Cracker'' on A&E tonight. Oozing disdain, Fitz, a criminal psychologist brilliant at cracking tough murder cases in and around Manchester, ponders a personal landscape that includes an embittered wife, neglected children and a shattered lover, not to mention monumental addictions to alcohol and gambling. With grand Celtic perversity, Fitz, created by the writer Jimmy McGovern, is entirely alien to most pontificating notions of political correctness. Long known primarily as a comic actor in films, Mr. Coltrane has accomplished the extraordinary feat of making the almost insufferable Fitz oddly lovable. He's a scamp of the highest order, capable of organizing a bingo game at his mother's Funeral Mass because that's what the old gal enjoyed most in life. In the beginning, Fitz was merely what might be termed hefty; he has now reached frightfully blimpish proportions. Yet he has become a sex object for several women, and Mr. Coltrane makes sure that you'd better believe it. 

 

Tonight's two-hour episode, ''True Romance,'' finds Fitz being pursued by a young woman who turns out to be ardently murderous. Played by Emily Joyce, diabolically clever Janice is a top candidate for scariest villain of the year while she sets about delivering up the dead bodies of young men as offerings to her love for Fitz. Gradually, Fitz's own family is drawn into her poisonous web. Meanwhile, Fitz tries to re-establish ties with his 19-year-old son, Mark (Kieran O'Brien), who has finally found a job in a fast-food outlet. ''I don't suppose that Wendy's of yours sells Scotch,'' frazzled Fitz says hopefully. Fitz is not especially comfortable among young people, noting that ''they're all so bloody sure of themselves.'' Lecturing students, he assures them that when they leave home their parents ''are ecstatic to get the spare room back.'' Beneath the sarcasm, obviously, beats an intensely caring heart, even though family and friends have their frequent doubts. 

 

Like ''Prime Suspect,'' in which Helen Mirren beat Robbie Coltrane to the international-stardom punch, ''Cracker'' has succeeded for the most part with strong scripts and splendid casting. Mr. Coltrane has the invaluable support of, among others, Barbara Flynn as Judith, Fitz's wife; Geraldine Somerville as Detective Sgt. Penhaligon, his co-worker and lover; Ricky Tomlinson as Wise, the head of the detective squad, and Clive Russell as Danny Fitzgerald, Fitz's brother. Invariably, the villains of the various pieces have been done to wonderfully nasty turns. Is Fitz being laid to permanent rest? Not exactly. Mr. Coltrane, whose performance has won two consecutive best-actor awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, is tired of the demands of a regular series but allows, ''Someone will come up with a great story and we'll think let's get back together and make that, and we will.''

 


 

In Between Crimes, Adultery and Death By John J.O'Connor

 

British television has produced two smashing police-detective series in recent years, each a superb vehicle for its star. Granada Television takes credit for both: "Prime Suspect," with Helen Mirren, and "Cracker," starring Robbie Coltrane. "Cracker," created by Jimmy McGovern ("Priest"), begins a third season of feature-length dramas tonight on A&E, three this time. Prepare for some serious rattling. Running for three hours, including a half-hour of commercials, "Brotherly Love" picks up more or less where "Men Should Weep" left off last season. Traumatized by a rape, Detective Jane Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville) had stuffed a gun into the mouth of a detective colleague, Jimmy Beck (Lorcan Cranitch), whom she believed to be the disguised rapist. Now it's four months later. Jane, gutsy but not callous, didn't pull the trigger. 

 

Jimmy is returning from sick leave, still swearing he didn't do it. Mr. Coltrane's Fitz, an overweight forensic psychologist who could easily be mistaken for George Wendt's Norm on "Cheers," is trying desperately to tread lightly. He had been having an affair with Jane, a situation that still doesn't sit well with his wife, Judith (Barbara Flynn), who is about to give birth to their third child. Then Fitz learns his mother, whom he has been neglecting, has died. Life is boring and banal, he observes glumly, "and then a parent dies and there's a genuine emotion." And that's only what Fitz is confronting close to home. On the job, a prostitute is found murdered. The police arrest a family man named David Harvey (Mark Lambert), whose wife, Maggie (Brid Brennan), is fiercely protective and whose brother Michael (David Calder) is a Roman Catholic priest, the same one who will be officiating at the funeral service for Fitz's mother, a service that will include a game of Bingo, one of Mom's favorite diversions. David the suspect is jailed, but murders of prostitutes continue, their modus operandi involving the victim's doing a little-girl routine, a "Shirley Temple," for her client while singing "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" The police search desperately for a killer, Jane keeps chipping away at Jimmy's fragile defenses, Fitz burrows mercilessly into the psyches of both suspects and dear ones. 

 

Intertwining the plots, Mr. McGovern, who wrote the script, offers ingenious variations on his obsessive theme of guilt and atonement, managing to touch on everything from abortion to Mike Tyson. Fitz, of course, remains grandly incorrigible. In the very first scene, he looks at a "no smoking" sign in his taxi while lighting up a cigarette. Driver: "Can you read?" Fitz, deadpan: "Is that a rhetorical question?" Going to confession for the first time in some 30 years, he warns the priest that "this won't be a two-minute job with a damp sponge." Too much? Fitz defiantly declares, "I am too much!" Mr. Coltrane makes devastatingly clear why his Fitz portrayal has for two years in a row walked off with the best-actor award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. And the rest of the cast keeps up splendidly. Note in particular the outstanding contributions of three actresses: Ms. Somerville, Ms. Flynn and Ms. Brennan. "Brotherly Love" carries an advisory about adult themes. In short, this is television for grown-ups. And powerful television, at that.

 


The Unofficial Guide To Cracker 1999-2006

(http://www.crackertv.co.uk)