Keegan Deane is a guy who just can’t catch a break, mostly because he doesn’t deserve one. It’s all this silver-tongue lawyer can do to keep living the ”where’s-the-party?” lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed but refuses to earn. He makes modest money barely working, entering guilty pleas for guilty men. Itinerant and cash strapped, he’s made himself a permanent guest at his best friend’s house by exploiting the man’s good nature. Leave? No, he tells Ben (John Ortiz): ”That will make you feel bad about you, and I won’t let you do that to yourself.”
But the checks that Deane’s ass can’t cash have all come due. In the opening moments of Rake, the enforcer (Omar J. Dorsey) for a bookie to whom Deane, a reckless gambling addict, owes $59,000 bashes his face and delivers an ultimatum, plus a call to change. ”Pay your debts. C’mon, Kee! Where’s your dignity?!” He might as well be speaking for almost everyone in Deane’s life, from the therapist ex-wife (Miranda Otto), who dumped him for being a lying cheating narcissist, to the long-suffering secretary (Tara Summers) that Deane can’t pay, or won’t.
Adapted from an Australian series by Peter Tolan, the creator of the FX drama Rescue Me, Rake is yet another show that tries to entertain us with a boorish, morally sketchy protagonist. Comparisons have been made to House or cable drama cads like Don Draper, but it’s the differences from the ”Unlikeable Antihero” archetypes of current TV that define the show (or at least the pilot, which was the only episode made available for preview). Rake introduces itself as an hour-long comedy — unconventional for broadcast television — and an old-fashioned star vehicle. As such, Tolan and his collaborators (who include director Sam Raimi) want you — need you — to really like their unlikeable protagonist. And so Keegan Deane is a clown, not an arse, played by Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets, Little Miss Sunshine) in a fully engaged, zany-charming performance, and the storytelling makes it easy to laugh at him and with him. The world is rigged to deny or subvert pleasure and reward for his bad behavior, and he just may help someone or society by episode’s end, whether he wants to or not. The story inducts him at every turn, unless he’s interacting with someone less honorable or more hypocritical than himself. Even then, though, Deane is keenly aware he’s not one to talk. When a fellow lawyer tells him he can’t pay off his poker debt, Deane tries to get indignant (”You’re a real deadbeat, Jerry! ? Where is your dignity? All we have at the end of the day is our dignity!”), but he can’t sell it. Almost every scene in the pilot ends with some kind of comic button — a look, an ironic line, a sight gag. You can practically hear the implicit sad trombone after Deane’s every fail and defeat.
Typically, a lawyer show is a case-of-the-week franchise. But one of many things that I enjoyed about the premiere was its character-driven story, suggesting a series not rigidly beholden to the formulaic structure of a legal drama. The rather quirky plot of the premiere is set in motion by the fallout of the two aforementioned gambling scenes. We watch Deane as he tries to generate cash to settle his debt by trying to liquidate an asset — a very large, rather valuable tuna. As a general rule, any show that tries to amuse us by having its protagonist lug around a giant fish for an entire episode deserves a gold star for effort.
While Deane tries to move his tuna, he’s forced to try a case he does not want, involving a serial killer (Peter Stormare) as vain as himself. This plot struck me as meta interesting and perhaps revealing of some secondary thematic interests of the show. Both Deane and his psycho client assume they’ll get much media attention, and they crave it. Instead, a high-profile, white-collar criminal upstages them at the courthouse. Quips a disappointed Deane: ”What does it say about society when a second-rate Bernie Madoff trumps a serial killer in the news?” How about a pop culture, society oversaturated with serial killers and attuned to more relevant forms of injustice? (Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on Rake’s part.) Indeed, the Bernie Madoff name-drop is one of many ways the pilot attends lightly but continuously to themes of fairness and exploitation, risk, responsibility and reward, with money as the bottom line for everything. I’m intrigued by the possibility that Rake is not only a weekly profile of its titular scoundrel, but a weekly poke at the various archetypes of very bad men that fill the culture — the Dexters, the Walts, the Sopranos — and perhaps present a distorted view of reality. SPOILER ALERT! The big twist in the serial-killer story line is that the serial killer is not nearly as serial killery as he proclaims to be, and while he’s a bad man, he plays the part of psychopath as part of a mutually beneficial arrangement with a corrupt cop.
As Deane struggles through his pair of fish stories, we come to understand his own slimy character via the relationships that make up Deane’s world. They include a son, who seems to be at risk for becoming a playa like his pop, and a ”girlfriend” with a twist I’d rather not spoil. Almost all of the women in Deane’s life are righteous ballbusters, and while they are absolutely correct to take Deane down a peg, they could use some modulation, particularly best friend Ben’s wife and Deane’s chief legal adversary, Scarlet (Necar Zadegan). I found myself wondering if perhaps the reason Ben hasn’t mustered the guts to boot Deane from his home is that letting him squat represents his passive aggressive way of revolting against his domineering wife. If so, then Rake is slyly illuminating and mocking the appeal of the Very Bad Man archetype: They offer catharsis for the powerless, and in particular, the emasculated male. This is mirrored in the ongoing conflict that is created by Deane’s ironic act of heroism in the pilot, in which the resolution of the serial-killer case puts Deane at odds with the mayor and the police department. This makes us like Deane even more. Yes, he’s a scoundrel worthy of the world’s enmity, but he’s a bad man trapped with the rest of us in a corrupt world run by even worse scoundrels. We’ll enjoy see him getting his comeuppance — and his vengeance.
The biggest irony about Rake’s first episode — and possibly its most interesting — is that it isn’t actually the pilot episode, which will reportedly air later in this season. This was not by design. The pilot presented an edgier, harder-to-like Keegan, and upon further consideration, Fox decided it made for an uninviting introduction to the series.
Knowing this information suggests a show that is not a weekly fun-time wallow in the rake’s rake-ishness, but a show with character development: The rake’s regress. A downward spiral might loom. But can Rake tell that story and still be funny? How long before we get weary of increasingly bad behavior before we demand that the Rake begin to progress? But then, if that happens, how much self-improvement do you allow into Deane’s character before Rake stops being Rake?
Knowing this information also accentuates the show’s biggest flaw: the bogusness of its tone. As much as I was entertained by Rake, its ”unlikeable hero” feels familiar and formulaic, and the comic treatment — an attempt to make his archetype more likeable — feels calculated and phony. It’s never forced, though; Kinnear makes it all go down so easy. But it’s a one-man show; another irony of this series about a narcissistic character who desperately needs to realize that the world doesn’t and shouldn’t revolve around the likes of him is that all of the supporting characters exist solely to service and comment upon Deane. They’re well cast, but none of them offers a reason to keep watching. Whether you choose to stick with Rake beyond the pilot hinges almost entirely on the degree to which you find Kinnear amusing in this role. His performance is as good as it gets. Good enough for Rake to progress? Time will tell, and quickly. B