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They've lost some fizz in the interim

It's good to see the flawed protagonists of `Viva Blackpool' and `Cracker' again, but the story lines fall short.

October 28, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

In "Viva Blackpool: Ripley's Return," airing Saturday on BBC America, the U.S. export is the Vegas-style theme wedding. In Monday's "Cracker," which returns Robbie Coltrane as forensic psychologist Fitz, the export is war.

The two projects practically form a consensus of mood about America from across the pond, or at least of image. Anyway it's good to see you both: Ripley Holden, the con artist played by David Morrissey on "Viva Blackpool," and Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, the voraciously flawed forensic psychologist on the classic "Cracker."

Though they come at life from opposite sides of the law, Ripley and Fitz are birds of a feather -- men hiking up mountains of self-deception and petty behaviors to do the right thing, finally, or at least make a respectable stab at it.

Each main character is easily rich enough for another go-round, so it's not quite the characters who disappoint here so much as the celebrated creators behind them.

In the case of "Ripley's Return," that would be Peter Bowker, whose miniseries "Viva Blackpool" made a sparkling entrance on American soil last year.

Murder! Elvis Costello singalongs! Fish and chips! Tonally, the show was "a gas" in the spirit of that old show business superlative -- part whodunit, part musical, part black comedy.

As Ripley, a wannabe Steve-Wynn-by-the-Irish-Sea, Morrissey's big performance had the feel of James Gandolfini on "The Sopranos" but amid a show that was looser and self-parodying, set against the faded, vaudevillian glamour of Blackpool, England.

The karaoke in "Viva Blackpool" was a la Dennis Potter's "Pennies From Heaven" or Steven Bochco's "Cop Rock." CBS is reportedly planning a remake of "Viva Blackpool" with Bowker and Hugh Jackman as executive producers.

When last we left Ripley, he had lost his dream of gambling arcade mogul-hood, and his wife had run off with the detective investigating his son for the murder in his casino. Ripley himself landed on the Las Vegas Strip, and I guess I was hoping we'd pick up where we left off, with Ripley perhaps attempting to work his way up from entertainment booker at the Stratosphere to head of food and beverage at the Mirage.

Instead, in "Ripley's Return," he's back in Blackpool with less than half a vengeance (though juking to Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"). We find Ripley living out of a mobile home in a boardwalk-adjacent car park with his daughter Shayanne (Georgia Taylor), now a single mother.

Ripley's new angle is the Vegas-style theme wedding (try the "Harry Potter" package), Ripley having been ordained by the Vegas Church of Christ the Economist. The collar gives him a new look, though he's the same blustering carnival barker of a self. "We're all liars," Ripley says consolingly to his chapel organist, who apparently wasn't in Dire Straits or the Rolling Stones, as he had claimed. "It's what separates us from the beasts."

Into his seaside house of matrimony walks an unreal Southern belle named, as in porn, Kitty De-Luxe (Megan Dodds). While Ripley's dream is to rebuild his Blackpool empire on the backs of the quickie wedding package, Kitty's is to star in her own ice show that she describes as "Paradise Lost" on skates.

"It's got sex, it's got religion, it's got skating," she tells Ripley.

Ripley falls hard, but never trust a skater. As in "Viva Blackpool," the two-hour "Ripley's Return" is about cons conning each other while deceiving themselves. But the Kitty character never coalesces around the referents -- noir femme fatale meets Tonya Harding meets "Dancing With the Stars" (or is that "Skating With Celebrities"?).

To pad the intrigue, Bowker cooks up a plot involving the missing original World Cup and a dead friend of Ripley's whose ashes now reside in the cup part. What unfolds is all in good fun, but the jokes didn't seem as effortful the last time around.

It's been longer since we last saw Fitz in "Cracker," which ran on the BBC from 1993 to '96 and was then remade, also by CBS, starring the late Robert Pastorelli.

Now the Robbie Coltrane character's been brought out of shipping and handling by creator Jimmy McGovern, who did the beautiful, still-airing BBC miniseries "The Street."

Coltrane's Fitz is a little bigger now, a little grayer, Googling Viagra. He lives in Australia, which, given his indoor interests, seems a kind of punishment. With his long-suffering wife, Judith (Barbara Flynn), he's back for the wedding of his daughter.

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