When Rake first hit our screens in 2010, it signalled a shift in Australian television. Based loosely on the life of barrister Charles Waterstreet (now a Sydney Morning Herald columnist), Rake’s lead character Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh) is an unscrupulous, misanthropic but undeniably endearing scoundrel – one Australian television needs and deserves.
While critic David Dale noted in the Sydney Morning Herald that the show isn’t always a ratings winner (not that surprising, given our collective love affair with reality TV), it consistently presents a smart take on Australian cultural life. Commentary on Rake from the likes of Lauren Carrol Harris, Karl Quinn, and Debi Enker suggests that the show has gradually nudged its way into Australian pop culture.
The show routinely parodies Australian law and politics, as well as Australian media. In an episode right before last week’s federal election, Cleaver announced he was running against his sister for the Senate, with a campaign aimed at young people: “running for nothing”.
Australian television thrives on satire: Fast Forward (1989-1992), Front Line (1994-1997), Kath and Kim (2002-2007), and Housos (2011-2013), targeting bogans, politicians, journalists, or all of the above.
But Rake exemplifies hybrid television, thanks to its writers (Roxburgh, Peter Duncan. Its comedic elements – Cleaver’s brilliant antics in and outside the courtroom – are balanced with poignant moments of the absurd and tragic, such as Scarlet’s (Danielle Cormack) sudden death in season four.
As Debi Enker writes in The Sydney Morning Herald:
Rake has always been a piquant hybrid, a series that deftly blends legal and crime drama with cheeky comedy and political satire, and it has assembled one of the most vibrant ensembles on Australian TV.
This ensemble has included Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, Miriam Margolyes, and Hugo Weaving, to name a few. But it’s the regular cast that makes the series resonate on such a relatable level. The show’s actors are frequently applauded in discussions on just what makes Rake such good television.
But good acting isn’t the only secret. Rake also employs plenty of postmodern techniques such as metafiction, in which a show subtly alludes to itself as fiction, as well as intertextuality – frequently referencing other popular culture. In the latest season, viewers were treated to an in-show episode of Media Watch (1989-), with real-life host Paul Barry taking a swipe at fictional but all-too-real right-wing politician Cal McGregor (Damien Garvey).
Other staples of Australian cultural life, like Australian Story and radio presenter Fran Kelly, have also made appearances. This tongue-in-cheek approach was pioneered by American shows such as The Simpsons (1989-), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), and The Sopranos (1999-2007).
Another trope of postmodern television is the figure of the anti-hero. With his many flaws, and blunt, dismissive outlook, Cleaver Greene joins a long list of charismatic television anti-heroes: Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dr House (House, 2004-2012), Dr Cox (Scrubs, 2001-2010), and Edmund Blackadder (Blackadder, 1983-1989).
Rake straddles the high/low cultural divide. Cleaver frequently quotes Yeats, is a fan of Balzac, but remains distinctly Australian, asking one character: “What in the name of Bob Menzies are you doing here?” In the very first episode of the series Cleaver says of Lord Byron: “Bugger me, he was good.” And in the seventh episode of the most recent season, Cleaver tells a priest: “I could out-Nietzsche you at five paces.”
Its combination of distinctly Australian-isms, and more sophisticated references beyond Australia’s own culture puts Rake in a rare and enviable position in Australian television history. As Lauren Carroll Harris wrote in the Guardian:
It’s hard to miss the show’s rich, no-bullshit Australian vernacular, rare as that way of speaking is these days.
Harris also observes that Rake is essential TV viewing in the post-Chaser era:
In a Chaser-free TV landscape, Rake has stepped in to provide reliable, weekly analysis of a dying political system that parodies itself.
The series was remade for American television in 2014, with Greg Kinnear in the title role, renamed Keagan Deane. Like many Australia-to-America remakes, it fell flat without the humour or darkness of the original, and was cancelled after one season.
Australian writer Ben Neutze credits the original Rake’s success to Roxburgh’s complex portrayal:
A lot of the reason that Richard Roxburgh gets away with it is that he just has bucket loads full of charm. And I think in the Australian version there’s always the sense that he is a genius underneath all his madness, whereas I didn’t really get that sense from Greg Kinnear, as talented as he is.
What the failure of the American version shows is that Rake is situated within a distinctly Australian cultural environment. The show deliberately engages with Australian stereotypes in order to subvert them, with Cleaver embodying a more nuanced version of the Aussie battler. Through its diverse portrayal of Australian people and culture, Rake ushers in a new kind of Australian satirical drama.
The final episode of season four of Rake airs on ABC TV on Thursday 7 July at 8.30pm.