The very definition of a star vehicle, the new Fox series Rake can’t get enough of Greg Kinnear. The premiere episode oozes Kinnearness from every pixel like no show since… well, since Kinnear left Talk Soup almost two decades ago. If you’re a fan, that’s probably reason enough to watch. It may have to be, because at least in its first outing, Rake struggles to establish any sort of identity for itself. It’s comedic, but not especially funny. It’s set in the legal world, but it’s no procedural drama. It’s yet another antihero show, but a watered-down one fit for network television. Its central bad boy wouldn’t last five minutes on Justified or Breaking Bad.
Created and written by Peter Duncan, Rake is based on Duncan’s Australian series of the same name. It’s somewhat surprising that Fox retained the title, given that the word “rake” is used here for its rather archaic connotation of a dissolute, licentious person. I picture a red-faced Fox executive insisting that Duncan change Kinnear’s character’s name to John Rake just to avoid confusion. But instead, Kinnear plays Keegan Deane, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney of questionable moral character. As “Serial Killer” opens, Keegan is riding high, having just won a $15,000 bet on a football game. It’s all downhill from there.
“Serial Killer” follows the playbook established by the premieres of anti-hero series dating back at least as far as The Sopranos, with each scene peeling back another layer of Keegan’s screwed-up life. Immediately after his big win, he’s beaten up by his buddy who is also a leg-breaker for the bookie Keegan owes $55,000. That doesn’t stop him from heading straight to an all-night poker game where he is again a big winner. The loser, another lawyer, doesn’t have the cash to pay up, so instead Keegan wins a client: the notorious “Westside Ripper” (Peter Stormare), who has already confessed to nine murders. All Keegan has to do is enter a guilty plea and collect his fee.
Because he’s such a rascally rogue, Keegan also picks up a date at the game and brings her home. Unfortunately it’s not his home, but rather that of his best friend Ben (John Ortiz) and his wife Scarlet (Necar Zadegan), who also happens to be the prosecutor in the Westside Ripper case (because this is a Los Angeles populated by about 12 people who all know each other). And the hits just keep on coming: Keegan’s football bet is paid off in the form of a Pacific bluefin tuna, with assurances that he’ll be able to get up to $25,000 for it from a sushi restaurant. His car is towed and his driver’s license is expired. His shrink is also his ex-wife. His teenage son causes an accident on a freeway onramp when Keegan allows him to drive. His favorite prostitute penalizes him for being late for an appointment. His client decides to plead “not guilty” after all. Rake definitely isn’t a slow-boil show; it desperately wants to entertain you, and to that end, it keeps bouncing from one absurd situation to the next.
Sometimes, this works: The recurring image of Keegan dragging the giant tuna cooler around never fails to amuse. But the show is in such a rush to get to the next wacky event, it ends up barely skimming the surface of its storylines. Presumably, future episodes will give us a little more to chew on in regards to characters like Maddy the ex-wife/shrink (Miranda Otto) and Mikki the prostitute/love interest (Bojana Novakovic), but here, they’re barely placeholders indicating “this character exists.” But the most egregious example of this “get it over with” approach is the big courtroom scene, which exhibits a verisimilitude of the judicial process not seen on television since Night Court. I’m no legal scholar, but I’m fairly certain no judge would allow a defense attorney to harangue a police chief on the witness stand with a highly speculative conspiracy theory, especially one without a shred of evidence backing it up.
Keegan’s theory does prove to be (mostly) correct, because he’s good at his job while being terrible at the rest of his life. (You know, because he’s a character on television and that’s the law.) Rake makes a running joke of the fact that Keegan’s verbal facility in the courtroom becomes a liability in the real world when he can’t stop running his mouth at the cop who pulls him over or the sushi chef negotiating for tuna. His gone-to-seed boyish charm is the only thing keeping him afloat, which is why it’s a good thing Kinnear is aboard. The role is tailor-made for his persona, and he’s an old pro at playing the scoundrel you can’t help but root for.
The problem with Rake so far is that Keegan isn’t enough of a scoundrel. It’s not that we need another show about a complete sociopath, but “Serial Killer” is so tame it almost seems to have been thawed out after 20 years in suspended animation. The episode concludes with a sitcom wrap-up in which Keegan’s already weightless conflicts are resolved (or at least postponed) by a few good tuna steaks. It’s just a little too cutesy, and another indication of Rake’s uncertain tone. The good news is this is only the first episode and there’s still time for the show to find its voice.
- I have no prior knowledge of the Australian series aside from a five-minute clip I watched on YouTube. There appears to be a lot more swearing. Anyone familiar with the original Rake?
- I almost didn’t recognize John Ortiz from Luck because I could understand everything he said.
- I wish we’d gotten a clip of Mark Harmon’s Golden Globe-winning performance as Peter Stormare’s Westside Ripper. Instead, we got special guest star Greta van Susteren, which I don’t see as a fair tradeoff.