Friday, January 24, 2014

Premiere Review: Rake

Rake (Thursdays at 9:00 on Fox)

Rake is the second show this year to air an episode other than its pilot as its first episode (the other being ABC's Super Fun Night). Typically this indicates that the pilot wasn't particularly good, but that the show's promise was there and the network invested its faith in future episodes improving. Fox also gave Rake, which is based on an Australian series of the same name, the added bonus of premiering at midseason, so that extra time could be allowed for retooling and improvement, not to mention the huge promotional push made possible by the network's airing of the high profile NFC championship game this past weekend. But I can't imagine that gamble has paid off for Fox, because the creators behind Rake have still presented a House-but-with-lawyers antihero dramedy that tries to be zany and unpredictable but mostly is just the exact opposite.

Greg Kinnear is Keegan Deane, a womanizing drunk with a gambling problem and a sad past. He shares a teenage son with his ex-wife (Miranda Otto of the Lord of the Rings franchise), who also happens to be his psychiatrist, and hasn't been able to get his life back on track since the divorce. He's been crashing at his best friend's house; Keegan and Ben (John Ortiz, Luck) have known each other since law school... and so has Ben's wife, Scarlett (Necar Zadegan), who is none too pleased with their rambunctious new house guest coming and going at all hours and being drunk in front of their kids. But Keegan doesn't care, because it's all hard-partying and fun for him: late-night poker games, football wagers, scotch, fancy cars, and easy women. On top of it all, Keegan can't seem to find a client who isn't a deadbeat (one in this first episode pays him a $15,000 debt in fish).

All of this "wild lifestyle" is meant to say that Keegan is just so unorthodox, so edgy, because he's living it up when he should be settling down. Ben and Scarlet are his foils, representing everything the world expects him to be: married, cloistered, complacent, and boring. But to contrast that lifestyle, Keegan comes across as just as boring, but in a different way: he does everything the exact opposite of what is expected. A lawyer his age should be married? Okay, Keegan's going to hire prostitutes and sleep around. He should have a wealth of savings and make good money? Fine, he's in gambling debt and takes clients who can't pay up. It becomes expected in its rebellion and boring in its opposition. And this opposition is played to cliche comedic effect throughout the show. When Keegan says, "All we have left is our dignity," it's followed immediately by a shot of him passed out under his friend's kitchen table. When Scarlet tells Keegan to drive safely, it's followed immediately by a scene of him driving without paying attention to the road. And both of these examples are just from the first ten minutes. Even Keegan, as a character, is a cliche. It's obvious from his brief interactions with those opposing him, particularly his ex-wife, that he's just doing all this to cover his melancholy (from his divorce, from missing out on milestones in his son's life) and his insecurity (that he may not be a very good lawyer, that without a successful personal life he can't have a successful professional life). You don't need a psychiatrist for a wife (or an ex, as it were) to know that Keegan is engaging in classic defense mechanisms... and by "classic," I mean "common and predictable."

The very dated thinking behind Rake can be gleaned from the source of its title: a "rake" was a man in seventeenth century England who was defined by his immoral conduct, like seducing women, gambling, and drinking. Keegan is the show's modern take on this centuries-old man. He follows, to a T, this prototype. Unfortunately, what was scandalous and inappropriate in Restoration England is just what we call "youthful living" now. Keegan plays poker with money he doesn't have, drinks scotch, picks up women in bars, and loses his car... which sounds like a pretty typical night for any of a host of celebrities that TMZ follows around. This rake isn't all that out there, not even for a stereotypically straight-laced lawyer; the antics of the title characters on TNT's Franklin & Bash are more outlandish...and more entertaining. Perhaps what works in Australia just doesn't work as well in the States. (Rake is created and this episode written by the original Australian creator Peter Duncan.)

Rake just seems content to rest on the only truly positive thing it has going for it: Greg Kinnear. He's totally charming, and his performance makes the hour fly breezily by. His Keegan is obviously insanely narcissistic, but Kinnear makes him somehow sympathetic; few actors could make such a horrible, selfish manchild likeable, but Kinnear succeeds. Keegan is the lawyer version of Gregory House, and, like Hugh Laurie, Kinnear plays up the more charismatic aspects of his semi-douchey character and downplays the more despicable traits. If nothing else, he's giving a really fun performance in a show that's not quite worthy of his talents. Perhaps what passes for "good" in Australia just isn't the same thing here in the States.

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