Why Cracker sank over the Atlantic
Monday 09 February 1998
It was hailed as the biggest exporting breakthrough in the history of British television. Cracker had cracked open the world's biggest marketplace. The Brits were coming to America (again) and this time they'd show those dumb Yanks how to make truly gritty TV dramas.
But ABC recently lost faith in Fitz and cancelled Cracker mid-run. It had originally planned 22 episodes - the American norm for such a series - but it pulled the plug after just 11. A further five episodes have been produced and are now gathering dust in an LA studio. There are several competing theories as to why the series bombed. Poor scheduling is the one preferred by Granada. But others believe the product they supplied was of questionable quality and, in particular, Robert Pastorelli (who played the Californian Fitz) wasn't a patch on Robbie Coltrane.
First off, let's deal with the prime suspect - Pastorelli. His profile and past record - the house painter in the sitcom Murphy Brown - didn't make him an obvious candidate to step into Coltrane's shoes after the oversized Scot gave the thumbs down to personal involvement in the US project. Then again, Pastorelli wasn't being asked to play the exact same character. Cracker had to be somewhat toned down for the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Californian Fitz (like his Manchester-based predecessor) is a forensic psychologist who "cracks" cases with his sharp insight into the criminal mind, but his vices aren't anywhere near as big as big Robbie's. He has a shambolic marriage, all right, and a bit of a drink problem, but he's never as menacing and bloody obnoxious as the character portrayed by Coltrane. He certainly never drinks and drives. Pastorelli's Fitz is a smoker, but you only ever see him with an unlighted cigarette. "Standards and practices are different here," explained Peter Locke, one of the ABC show's co-producers. "You can't have your leading man walking around drunk and smoking cigarettes all the time." Critics who compared the two Fitzes largely preferred the British original, which had already developed a cult following across the Atlantic through sporadic instalments on the A&E (Arts & Entertainment) cable network.
When the US premiere aired, Pastorelli got panned in the Washington Post, whose reviewer Tom Schales wrote: "Pastorelli's Fitz is the pits, a sullen and self-adoring jabber-jaws... He seems to have more dialogue than Hamlet and Macbeth put together... turns a character who should be fascinating into one of the great cloddish bores of our time." The New York Daily News was just as damning: "Anyone who sees Coltrane will have a very hard time being impressed by Pastorelli's performance. He says all the same lines but doesn't say them the same. Coltrane is so intense, so brooding and so unsympathetic. Pastorelli's Fitz pales in comparison."
Pastorelli remained positive - in public anyway - shrugging off the negative comparisons with Coltrane. "We knew that was inevitable," he told USA Today. Other reviewers were rather kinder to him. "The remake does have a fine representation of Fitz - if 200 pounds lighter," observed The Hollywood Reporter. The New York Times thought Pastorelli handled the thankless task of trying to fit into Coltrane's shoes rather well. "While he doesn't go to the extremes of eloquence and chaos that Mr Coltrane did, he is just as relentless in showing how Fitz's pain can be illuminating."
So the case against Robert Pastorelli is - to deliver that uniquely Scottish verdict - not proven. Even had he been indisputably brilliant, there is still a strong chance the series would have bombed in the time-slots it was allocated. It was initially scheduled at 9pm on Thursdays against Seinfeld, which has been the most popular programme on US TV for some time. Even Murder One died a death in that slot.
Cracker got predictably slaughtered in the TV Valley of Death, pulling in only a fifth of the number of viewers who flocked to the aforementioned NBC sitcom. ABC shifted it to Saturday nights, but that was another graveyard slot. It's tough to attract viewers on date night with anything other than sheer escapism.
Granada - which established a Los Angeles-based branch, Granada Entertainment USA, to open up the American marketplace - refuses to accept that Fitz was a total flop. While openly disappointed that the show has been ditched, it remains proud of having been the first British production company to make a television drama in America for an American network.
Andrea Wonfor, joint managing director of Granada Productions, is hopeful that the 16 episodes of Fitz that have been made, and the critical acclaim which the series received, will serve as a useful calling card. "To have made 16 hours of original drama for the ABC network in the States is the sort of commission that most production companies only dream about," she said.
"We were always absolutely realistic about how tough the marketplace was that we were entering. We have learned a lot over the past few months, and Fitz is only the beginning of what we hope to do in the US."
The Fitz setback was slightly offset last week when Granada got the green light to produce two comedy pilots for competing US networks. Faith in the Future - a sitcom about a divorced woman and her grown-up daughter - is now in development with CBS, whilst NBC is taking Blind Men, which is about warring salesmen. Granada also negotiated a deal with Rupert Murdoch's Fox network to adapt Holding the Baby.
None of the above have been impressive prime-time performers in Britain. But that has plainly not put off the Americans. As the lukewarm response to the American adaptation of Cracker has shown, great ratings on this side of the Atlantic are no guarantee that a series will travel. It's the Neilsen ratings that matter to America's network bosses (and American advertisers) not the Barb ratings on this side of the pond - or the barbed criticisms.
Fitz appears on ITV tonight at 10.40pm.
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