20 February 2015 | fung0
Beyond brilliant, on every level
I tripped over this show on my way to the US remake, which caught my attention because of the presence of the always-likable Greg Kinnear. I'm very glad I tried the Australian original first. The US version is derivative and downright dreary; the original sparkles, with both razor-sharp satire and equally sharp-edged drama.
Rake manages to fuse comedy, courtroom trickery, human drama and even some odd moral allegory. All these facets are apparent in the first show, when Greene must defend a cannibal (brilliantly played by Hugo Weaving) - who just happens to be a free-market economist, and who (like most free-market economists) sees nothing wrong with what he has done. In the next show, Greene tries to get an innocent woman convicted, then is forced to switch and get a guilty one acquitted. Then he defends a bigamist, who just happens to be a model husband - more than once.
Greene's approach to the defence in each case is both clever and believable, in a way that most courtroom fiction is not. It reminds me of the best of Rumpole, with that series' ability to feel sympathy even for the guilty, and its reliance on astute legal trickery to make things come out 'right' in the end. Not to mention its ability to make us question just what 'right' means, in each case.
Rake has immediately leaped onto my list of top ten TV shows *ever*. It's as funny, vulgar and painfully real as the brilliant British sitcom Still Game. Yet it's equally compelling dramatically. It definitely has things to say, but it slips these points in subtly, slyly, when you're not looking.
Jack Lemon (speaking about The Apartment) said his ideal role was one that was both comedy and drama. That describes Rake perfectly. Richard Roxburgh may not be the equal of Lemon (who is?), but he comes through superbly as Cleaver Greene. The other roles are similarly well-handled, many of them by actors who will be very familiar to fans of Australian cinema.
The US version of Rake seems like a quality production, and I may give it another try, though I admit I was unable to get through the first episode. The show seems predictably gutless, unable to embrace the moral ambiguity of the Greene character. Kinnear ends up playing a dysfunctional loser, where Roxburgh scintillates as exactly what he should be: a rake - an utterly likable rogue, a womanizer, a vagabond. A man who has no choice but to live by his own rules, and who adheres to no moral code but his own.
I don't register a 10/10 rating very often, but in this case I felt like it was barely high enough. My advice: track down this show by whatever means necessary, and see it immediately.
UPDATE: Rake is back for a 4th season. There's no question that the original brilliance has dimmed just a bit. The first season focused on legal shenanigans. Successive seasons have become more of an improbably Rake-ish soap opera. They're still a load of fun, but maybe in the 8-9/10 range. Still, the approach remains unique, and it's always a pleasure to see Roxburgh chewing up the scenery as the quintessentially Australian anti-hero, Cleaver Greene.