: Rake


Penny Crofts

Rake DVDABC1 TV; created and produced by Richard Roxburgh, written by Peter Duncan, Andrew Knight;
starring Richard Roxburgh, Matt Day, Adrienne Pickering, Carolyn Brazier, Russell Dykstra and Kate Box;
series 1 (8 episodes) screened 2010 and series 2 (8 episodes) screened 2012; available on DVD (boxed set) $79.99

After a two-year wait, Rake has returned to the ABC. Criminal barrister Cleaver Greene, played by Richard Roxburgh, is back in court and wreaking havoc on his friends, associates and the legal system.

As a drama series, Rake succeeds. In common with so many other ‘legal’ dramas, Rake relies upon trials to introduce and resolve a story arc in one hour. However, Rake goes beyond many of these legal dramas, particularly the American flagships such as NCIS and Law and Order, through its construction and portrayal of the brilliant and brilliantly-flawed Cleaver, the rich set of characters surrounding him with their own concerns, as well as complex and ambiguous trials. In both series of Rake, the outcomes of the trials are not guaranteed, and nor is there always clarity about what the best outcome would be. The first series focused particularly on real, albeit quirky, criminal cases, whilst the second series is more political and satirical, and extends beyond the criminal into other areas of law including defamation. In the second series, the cases have, for the most part, been made up. It’s up for debate as to which series is best.

The special guest stars are a roll call of Australian success, attesting to the pulling power of Roxburgh and the quality of the writing. Roxburgh is more than happy to cede the limelight to his guests. Hugo Weaving gave a star turn as a cannibal in series 1, but the opening scenes of series 2, with Toni Collette as the NSW Premier getting so down and so dirty with Cleaver are a worthy start to the new series. The extreme anti-jargon ‘criminal’ played by Garry McDonald is also an excellent addition.

Rake has laugh-out-loud moments. Sam Neill’s turn as the dog-loving specialist was delivered with perfect comic timing. The scenes in chambers, with the judge discussing how best to describe the object removed in a castration case, are genius. The humour is provided not only with deadpan delivery but also with cunning legal jokes.

Series 2 provides some brilliant satirical moments. The satire on the corruption and incompetence of NSW politics is spot-on, encapsulated best in the shady minister for everything Cal MacGregor, combining with fabulous effect the roles of Attorney-General and Police Minister. Throughout the series, he plays tough on crime, except when nepotism or political expediency demands otherwise. Cal commands police to harass Cleaver with various trumped-up charges. The satire on our anti-terrorism laws through McDonald’s anti-jargon crusade is both hilarious and shocking. Commentary is also offered on government responses to WikiLeaks.

At times, the satire is not completely successful. Like most fiction, the series requires us to suspend disbelief. However, the satirical gaze is then turned on Cleaver and the audience — for our credulity in Cleaver’s supposed irresistibility to women, including teenage girls, and the ASIO sub-plot. This is a minor criticism of what is otherwise a very satisfying series. 

Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Greene is amazing — completely credible and very charming. Throughout the series he remains flawed, making mistakes of varying magnitude. It is possible to read Rake as a meditation on the impact of Cleaver’s mistakes on the people around him, particularly those with something to lose. His closest friends, Barney and Scarlet, spend the second series dealing with the ramifications of Scarlet’s affair with Cleaver. The sins of the father are visited in a sadly humorous way on Fuzz, Cleaver’s teenage son. Roxburgh maintains a careful line between charm and danger, so even when his ex-wife, a psychologist, is falling for Cleaver again, the audience remains sceptical that he will come good.

There are no easy answers offered in Cleaver’s life. He lives in a dirty studio apartment in Kings Cross, gambles away more than he can afford, and drinks himself into stupors where he does stupid things. His shambolic lifestyle has undermined the delivery of any of the wealth he might have attained. Cleaver provides an object lesson in the price of debauchery. Yet he sometimes provides a clear voice of judgment, particularly when clients ask him to defend the indefensible.

For Sydneysiders and lawyers, there is an added joy of seeing various legal scenes — ranging from the old Sydney University lecture halls and drinking holes to cells in Long Bay prison complex — providing a backdrop. Moreover, the law for the most part is correct, a welcome relief after some other TV legal productions which may have had the pedantic lawyer yelling at the screen. The series has also striven for accuracy in the portrayal of court scenes, suggesting that the cynical political shenanigans might also be true to life.

The two-year hiatus between series 1 and 2 has been well spent in developing persuasive and entertaining storylines and characters. Happily, the ABC has renewed for a third series. Rake has also been showing in the United States, and there have been discussions of developing an American version. One wonders if Cleaver and the law will maintain their complex flaws in a US series, or if redemption will transpire. Rake is one of the best Australian TV dramas in recent years, showcasing talented acting, writing and directing.

PENNY CROFTS is an academic with a passion for popular culture.

(2012) 37(4) AltLJ 296
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