It would be easy to write off Rake as a bad House ripoff. The show, which premieres tonight on Fox, has all of the same cliches we've seen in the glut of antihero dramas over the past decade.
There's the irascible, white male protagonist who's great at his job, the doting female stereotypes in his life, the shortcomings he tries to forget about with booze.
In this case, it's Greg Kinnear as a brilliant yet reprehensible lawyer named Keegan Deane. He's in some sort of relationship with a prostitute. He gambles and drinks. He's not a pleasant person to be around. None of this is as shocking as the show wants it to be, not 10 years after Hugh Laurie brought pill-popping doctor Gregory House to life on this same network.
But based on the first episode made available for critics, Rake, which is based on an Australian show of the same name, is too entertaining to dismiss. It will, however, need to work pretty hard to overcome its tired premise.
The first time we see Keegan (really with that name?), he's getting sloshed at a sports bar before getting into an altercation with his bookie over his $59,000 gambling debt. He wakes up the next morning in his best friend's house, where he's been an unwelcome guest for the past two months after his recent divorce (shocker!).
The show clearly wants us to see that Keegan is a mess. He can't even take his buddy's kids to school without getting pulled over by the cops. Okay, we got it. That's fine for a premiere episode, but now it's time to tone down those scenes; they're just not that compelling.
The premiere's most interesting moments come when Keegan goes to work. He's a good lawyer, and it's a relief to see him not screwing something up. The episode sets up an interesting case about a new client, a confessed serial killer (Peter Stormare) who might not be as guilty as he seems. Luckily, none of the lawyer stuff is played too straight, kind of like on The Good Wife, which has a silly-serious tone this show would be wise to emulate.
What saves Rake from being completely tiresome is Kinnear. He's a great pick for a pretentious know-it-all, given that he's played some version many times in his decades-long movie career (As Good As It Gets, Little Miss Sunshine). Kinnear nails the comedic moments (the opening, heavily inebriated scenes) and the serious ones. If he weren't so watchable, the show wouldn't be.
So far, the show's biggest shortcoming is its wholly uninteresting female characters. Keegan's friend's wife, also a lawyer, is introduced via her husband worrying that she'll scold him about Keegan's drunk presence in their home. Yeah, she's a real downer. The prostitute Keegan has an ongoing relationship with and his very helpful secretary Leanne (you know, the one who cleans up his messes) are reduced to silly cliches. At least his therapist ex-wife seems savvy. More scenes with her would be good for Kinnear's character.
None of the supporting characters are very memorable or on par with Kinnear, and that's something the show will need to remedy if it's going to remain interesting for an hour each week.
In fact, after watching the first episode I had to wonder: Would the show work better as a half-hour comedy?
There's an entire side-plot about Keegan trying to sell some fish a client gave him so he can pay his bookie that could be excised completely. It boosts the comedy quotient, but it's still unnecessary. The elements of the show that do work would pop more in a shorter episode.