There's no way this U.S. version ever could have equalled the UK original by Granada Television, even though the U.S. show was co-produced by Granada. If for no other reason, the necessary constraints of American network television when this series aired on ABC instantly resolved the question. Nudity, profanity, and violence more freely play on British broadcasts as, now, they do on American cable TV programs. Still, in this U.S. version there is more than enough of what made the UK original great to warrant watching and even owning the DVDs.
The striking difference between the appearance of the U.S. and UK casts makes sense: in the U.S. version, the cops look and act like American men and women. Robert Pastorelli plays a New Jerseyite transplanted to L.A., not a Scotsman transplanted to Manchester. More important, his Fitz is as much an abusive, arrogant, intellectual bully as Robbie Coltrane's reading and just as worthy of comeuppance. Angela Featherstone portrays an American version of Jane Penhaligon with nuance and subtlety, spot-on for the repressed, passive/aggressive character. Robert Wisdom (more recently of The Wire) plays the Jimmy Beck character without the angst that yielded the Grand Opera character arc (more on that below) of the later Jimmy McGovern-penned UK episodes. Instead, African-American Wisdom embodies the "black vs. blue" issue that's more relevant in the States than in the UK. Smoldering R. Lee Ermey is alternately threatening and paternal as the cops' boss. Carolyn McCormick plays the beleaguered Judith Fitzgerald well, but it's unfortunate that as written she's less fiery and less ethically ambiguous than Barbara Flynn. That's a shortcoming of the U.S. version. But in general, the cast is a fine ensemble, just different from the UK original--although it's fair to say that UK casting is always excellent from top to bottom, and some of the guest stars in the U.S. version are not quite up to snuff. However, the final episode of the U.S. series almost single-handedly makes this collection worth the price of admission. It's a treat to see guest star Robbie Coltrane as a murder suspect who says to Pastorelli's Fitz, "I know your work." Clearly the show offered enough to warrant Coltrane's participation.
Of the sixteen episodes here, six are distillations of UK originals (the entire first UK series, as well as "True Romance" and "Best Boys"). Also, the two-part U.S. episode "First Love" is written by Paul Abbott, who wrote the UK episodes "True Romance," "Best Boys," and "Lucky White Ghost" and who was a producer on the UK show. It would be interesting to learn whether Granada originally intended "First Love" for the UK Cracker. The script certainly would have capped off the Grand Opera story arc (centered on Bilborough, Beck, and Penhaligon) that infused the UK episodes "To Be A Somebody," "Men Should Weep," and "Brotherly Love." The episode never aired on ABC and wasn't seen until the show ran on A&E (according to the liner notes). Still, "First Love" is a high point of the series, both for the tense script and for the performances of the regular cast and the guest stars--Lucinda Jenney (the multiple-personality murderer from the "Extreme Unction" episode of Homicide: Life On the Street) and Nick Chinlund (the death-fetishist killer from The X-Files episode "Irresistible"), surely a welcome pair on any show. But for the most part the U.S. producers avoided such Sturm-und-Drang plots in favor of straightforward case-of-the-week stories. Note that the U.S. episode "An American Dream" is erroneously credited as based on "To Be Somebody" (with "To Be A Somebody" it shares only the heart-attack subplot).
So half of the episodes here stem from Cracker's creative team at Granada. Of the episodes based on Jimmy McGovern's originals, the format demands the diminished returns of distillation. In other words, how do you pack three 50-minute UK episodes into one 44-minute U.S. episode with commercial breaks? The only answer is "the best that you can," retaining the minimum necessary exposition and the high points of character and theme. Speaking of which, the U.S. version captures much of the UK original's feel in that it uses rapid editing to move the story along, then lingers on the meat of Fitz interrogating his "victims." The result is generally as bleak and ambiguous as the UK show, a more interesting mix than the high (but cookie-cutterish) quality of NYPD Blue or Law and Order.
All of the U.S. Cracker episodes not based on the UK originals are very much in keeping with the Cracker spirit. Each offers something worthwhile, and those written by producer Natalie Chaidez are especially good. Her two-episode teleplay "If" is on par with the Paul Abbott-penned installments produced on either side of the Atlantic. From start to finish "If" is a tense, provocative showcase for tough issues and good acting. Also, it's better than "Lucky White Ghost," "Best Boys," and writer Ted Whitehead's "The Big Crunch."
Which illuminates the bottom line: the U.S. Cracker at its best offers more than the least interesting of the UK Cracker installments. Jimmy McGovern's work on Cracker stands above the vast majority of television ever produced. Anyone else's Cracker script is a reinterpretation of McGovern's original, powerful work, regardless of who plays the central characters. So if Granada says it's Cracker, and it's written by Paul Abbott or Ted Whitehead or Natalie Chaidez, then it's Cracker. And like the UK original, this show works well when viewed as a lengthy body of work rather than on an episode-by-episode basis. For the open-minded Cracker fan, there's enough tasty meat to recommend the U.S. version, even if it doesn't stack up to McGovern's originals. How could anything, really?