Greg Kinnear can be very good in the right role, but he’s not a great actor. He’s less about burrowing into a character to find what makes them tick and more about projecting a soothing affability. No matter how much of an asshole a Kinnear character is, he has a tendency to get away with it because of that twinkle in his eye. The man came to fame, after all, as a television host on a program that made fun of other television, and he’s always had that air of cheeky irreverence.
Fox’s new legal drama, Rake, leans on that side of Kinnear’s persona to great effect. A remake of an Australian drama of the same name, Rake is an unabashed throwback to the pre-Tony Soprano era. Back then, TV antiheroes existed but were always undercut in some fashion: their vital service to the community, for example, or the ironic remove that let viewers know the character didn’t really mean anything they said. (For a good recent case of this, think of Hugh Laurie’s work on House, which encompassed both sides of this coin by the end of its run.) So much of this sort of antihero comes down to finding the right guy—and it’s almost always a guy—who can let the audience know he’s not actually that much of a jerk. He’s hurting somewhere deep inside, and if you just got to know him, you’d see that.
Kinnear is such a natural fit for the part of unscrupulous-but-winning lawyer Keegan Deane that it’s surprising to realize this program existed before without him (in another country no less). Though Kinnear hasn’t really been back to TV since he left Talk Soup, he’s perfect for a drama like this, able to hold the screen by motormouthing out of a jam but also capable of tossing to any other member of Rake’s talented ensemble cast. Too many television vehicles for movie stars are conceived as relentless onslaughts from the big lead, ignoring that much of TV is about building a dependable bench of supporting characters. Rake’s greatest triumph is deftly navigating these pitfalls in its early going.
The show’s sense of humor is also refreshing—in an arch, wry fashion that makes it feel less like the dour House clone it could’ve been. Kinnear helps here, but it’s possible to feel the bemused cynicism of executive producer Peter Tolan creeping through as well. Tolan’s co-creation, Rescue Me, eventually fell apart, but in its early seasons, the show was like nothing else on TV, blending the genuine tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with scabrously funny observations about the ways men behave when no women are around. Rake isn’t as rough-edged as that program, but there are elements of that complicated mixture of tones, particularly in the scenes where Keegan tries to get someone—anyone—to just kinda like him already.
Structurally, there’s nothing different or surprising about the show. Indeed, it might be a little overstuffed. Every week, Keegan takes on a new case involving some horrifying reprobate, usually to boost his own profile. And every week, he finds himself torn between doing what’s easy and doing what’s good. This formula doesn’t work if the protagonist isn’t competent at his job, and Keegan shows flashes of true brilliance in the courtroom. He’s not as much of a genius as Dr. House, but he doesn’t need to be, because so much of Rake is sustained by its tone.
It’s the rest of the program that needs rejiggering. As the center of the show, Keegan spends most episodes bouncing between various locations and characters, and there’s no sense of how the series will pull these various spheres together. Keegan goes to therapy with a character played by Miranda Otto. He goes to work (in a rotating series of offices, “donated” to him by lawyer pals) and bounces dialogue off his secretary. He goes to visit his brother (John Ortiz) and his sister-in-law (Necar Zadegan), to get a taste of the domestic life he’s eschewed. He spends time with a prostitute he mostly pays to be his friend, whom he’s clearly fallen in love with. (She’s played by Bojana Novakovic, and though both she and Kinnear are good in their scenes together, the story never shakes off the feeling of shady desperation permeating it.) If there’s supposed to be something cohesive here beyond Kinnear, it’s presently missing.
Rake appeared to be in trouble for a while: Its series premiere isn’t the original pilot, which was directed by Sam Raimi and is quite good. (That episode will air later, out of the original order.) But this isn’t the kind of show that needs its story told in absolute order to make sense, and the new first episode is good enough to suggest Tolan and creator Peter Duncan will be able to get at least a season out of the world punishing Keegan. There might not be enough here to go beyond that initial episode order, but just watching Kinnear play the sad asshole—wandering around L.A. without a car or getting beaten up due to gambling debts—keeps things rolling smoothly for now.
Created by: Peter Duncan
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Miranda Otto, John Ortiz, Necar Zadegan
Debuts: Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox.
Format: Hour-long legal drama
Two episodes watched for review