‘Rake: Series 1’ Is Charmingly Raising the Bar of Legal Dramas

[15 October 2012]

By Kate Spatola

Hollywood has a unique way of expressing its admiration for entertainment made beyond its shores. It applauds the original and creative work of international artists, but feels no need whatsoever to distribute it domestically. Hollywood is far more interested in the dark arts of acquisition and appropriation. Of course, this is just straightforward business – logical and obvious. Yet, from a fan’s point of view it’s disappointing that we Americans get to see so few original foreign programs.

It’s hardly an excuse, but it’s easy to imagine why American audiences have only a vague understanding of international film and television. The disparity between the entertainment programs we export and the media we import (most often for adaptation) is so disproportionate as to be utterly ridiculous. Hollywood all but says, ‘we will hire your writers, use your directors and makes stars of your actors but, really, we just have no need to see your shows.’

There has always been a tacit embargo on what American audiences get to see of the world. That many shows, which end up on our television screens, originated from abroad is hardly new. Television executives have long mined the troves of reality programs and game shows from the UK and Western Europe (Pop Idol, Big Brother, etc.). Only recently, however, has Hollywood looked abroad as a source of inspiration for scripted dramas and comedies. The list is growing rather long but a few examples include: Showtime’s Homeland and HBO’s In Treatment, which were both originally Israeli productions; AMC’s The Killing hailed from Denmark and ABC’s Ugly Betty started out as a Colombian telenovela.

Successful US remakes of foreign television shows lags far behind the colossal list of failures. For every success, like the The Office, there are countless casualties like Coupling and Kath and Kim. Naturally, television is designed to be more provincial than cinema. We sit and watch programs at home before going to bed or rise to work and don’t really want to go to far afield. Movies tend to be acts of intentional escapism; television is a comfortable companion that we prefer blend in with the rest of our furniture at home.

One of the great walls felled by digital technology over the last several years is the breakdown in distribution barriers for audiences that want to watch foreign films and television programs. The computer is now many people’s primary entertainment screen, and Hollywood has conceded this point by distributing more original programming from international markets. The audience is the clear winner in this transformation, as we now get to see so much more than ever before.  Finally, American viewers are catching up with the truth that there are many great television shows and movies that don’t come exclusively from Hollywood’s back lot.

One recent television show to finally cross the seas into America is Rake, the highly successful Australian series starring Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge, Mission Impossible II).  Rake is, admittedly, a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a straightforward legal drama; a sly comedy; a self-effacing portrait of love, loyalty and family; a cheeky send-up of the eternally adolescent middle-aged male psyche and just simple, relaxing fun. Like the show’s protagonist Rake is brash, unrepentant, and dazzled by the spectacle of its own polished charisma. The show’s pace can sometimes suffer from such indecision and self-consciousness, but the writing and acting are uniformly strong and save Rake from veering too far off track.

Richard Roxburgh plays Cleaver Greene, a Sydney defense barrister whose personal life is exceedingly more complicated than any of his law cases. His teenage son is dating his high-school teacher, he’s not quite over his ex-wife, he’s just slept with his best friend’s wife and he is hopelessly (genuinely) in love with a former high-class prostitute turned recent law student.

Cleaver is a brilliant, but deeply flawed, egoist who cannot resist most of life’s great temptations: women, drugs and gambling. He seems to be in perpetual motion, whether running from tax-evasion charges, his local bookies or the endless stream of women in his life. That he manages to be a superb lawyer who skillfully defends drug dealers, bigamists and murders is no small feat, but he thrives on the energy of attacking the most hopeless cases (and people) head-on. As a barrister he is not above (or below) questionable tactics.  As he says, he cares about the law – not justice.

Richard Roxburgh is a thoroughly compelling actor whose skill can sometimes be overlooked and dismissed by the force of his own engagement. Though often cast as the wily, smarmy charmer (e.g., Moulin Rouge) it’s too simple to dismiss him as such. He is an intelligent, kinetic, impulsive, constantly engaging and dynamic actor who feels no compulsion to have his audience like him. Greene’s rationalizations are selfish, contradictory and morally dubious but Roxburgh manages to convey the internal complexity of a man lost on the road to redemption by the cloudy authenticity of his own emotions.

The line between smarm and charm may be gossamer thin. Roxburgh, however, as Cleaver Greene, is balletic in his performance; mastering an agility to race right up to that line (of smarm) and, then, adroitly shift his balance to walk away leaving audiences amazed and reverberating in afterglow of his charm and talent.

Truth be told, there is nothing especially groundbreaking about Rake. It’s a well-polished bit of entertainment crafted by a smart and accomplished creative team. Co-developed by Roxburgh and Peter Duncan (Children of the Revolution), Rake quietly dazzles with its sharp writing and subtle performances (most especially by Russell Dykstra, Adrienne Pickering and Matt Day). A host of cameos by many of Australia’s most noted actors (Hugo Weaving, Noah Taylor, Sam Neill, Rachel Griffiths, Martin Henderson) also inject the series with a delicious taste of fun. 

Rake, an engaging television series that would easily fit on any of the main US network’s primetime schedules. In fact, Hollywood executives quickly recognized the commercial viability of Rake and an American adaptation has been optioned with Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine, As Good as It Gets) set to star. The American version of Rake may turn out to be wonderful, perhaps even surpassing the original. However, I would highly recommend seeking out the original series on DVD before being served its New World remake on broadcast or cable television.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/164316-rake-series-1/