Australians are known for punching above their weight no matter what profession they participate in, be it sports, technology or television, making themselves seem far superior to what they actually are. Yet of the dozens of local productions that do just that, there is one which has a right to, being every bit as great as its American and British counterparts.
Criminal lawyer Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh) is the most hapless person to ever become part of Sydney’s legal circuit. His private life is shambolic – he lives alone above an inner-city café, has tried to shake a cocaine habit, is constantly being persecuted for tax fraud and has fallen in love with his favourite prostitute, Missy (Adrienne Pickering). To ease his troubles, he either confides in his therapist and ex-wife Wendy (Caroline Brazier) or hangs out with his counsel Barney (Russell Dykstra).
Yet when Cleaver steps foot in the courtroom, he comes into a world of his own. With his intricate knowledge of the law and biting wit, Cleaver is the barrister one would want defending them. He’s seen as a champion of the underdog, accepting clients with bizarre charges who have little chance of winning their case – the very first episode sees Cleaver defending someone guilty of cannibalism, despite it being lawful in New South Wales. More often than not Cleaver is victorious, and hence beloved by many.
Although Cleaver is the central focus of Rake’s first series, more attention has been paid to his friends and supporting characters with every series that has followed. Such characters including Barney’s adulterous wife Scarlett (Danielle Cormack, Wentworth); small-time lawyer and later politician, David Potter (Matt Day); Cleaver’s secretary and assistant Nicole (Kate Box); and politician-turned-broadcaster Cal McGregor (Damien Garvey, Harrow), an obvious riff on the likes of Andrew Bolt.
In fact, Rake contains many allegories real-life figures and current events. For example, the episode “R v Langhorn” sees a conservative radio presenter accused of inciting racial hatred, alluding to comments made by “shock jock” Alan Jones prior to the Cronulla riots of 2005. Later, in the third series, references are made to the corruption allegations against several political figures in New South Wales, while the upcoming fifth series will undoubtedly draw comparisons with the persistent sideshow in Canberra.
There has also been talk that Cleaver Greene is based on eccentric Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet, a claim that Roxburgh denies – he is reported to have said at one point, “Any day I don’t hear the name Charles Waterstreet is a good day for me.” But the fact is, Waterstreet did make a small contribution to the creation of the series, with one of his own cases – involving a couple accused of bestiality – providing the inspiration for the plot of one episode, again in the first series.
While its closeness to Waterstreet’s life is questionable, these allusions to reality nonetheless remain enjoyable and provide just one of the many strengths of Rake, with another being its lead character, Cleaver Greene. In many ways, Cleaver is a hugely flawed protagonist, being a womaniser, drug user and loudmouth; yet behind that roguish façade is a man with an unyielding sense of kindness and compassion, which is evident when he represents his marginalised clients.
Cleaver’s charm is partly due to the efforts of actor Richard Roxburgh, who has perfectly embodied the character throughout the programme’s entire run – it’s as though the barrister is an extension of Roxburgh’s self. Arguably more impressive are the endeavours of the other cast members – as their roles have developed and expanded over the years, their acting has only gotten better. That, or the producers have realised how immensely talented they are, and allowed them to demonstrate that talent.
They haven’t been the only ones either, for various thespians have lent their capabilities to play guest roles over the years, including Hugo Weaving, Noah Taylor, Sam Neill, Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette, Bruce Spence, Cate Blanchett, and even Miriam Margolyes in a brief-yet-memorable appearance as the defence barrister of a career criminal. To have the support of so many famous names throughout the series says volumes about Rake’s quality, and the people behind it.
It’s saddening to report that Rake has not been consistently brilliant over the years, with the fourth series being weakest of all thus far. It made quite a strong start, with an opening episode that is among the best television this author has ever seen, before abandoning the conflict it had created with two-thirds of the series left to go. What the programme did, essentially, is cram three seasons worth of content into eight episodes, thereby making difficult to follow the proceedings of every character.
An American remake of Rake was produced not too long ago, with Greg Kinnear in the lead role, but due to the constricted nature of U.S. network television, it was unable to replicate much of what made the original series so endearing – see, the Australian version isn’t just following the life of a flawed man, but mocking the very society that plays host to him. Without the more mature elements, or the intimate Sydney setting, the show kind of feels lost.
Rake has brought together some of Australia’s finest actors and writers to craft a series that is, quite possibly, the best our industry has ever produced. By taking its cues from real-life personalities and events, this plucky antipodean programme has defied expectations to surpass the standard set by the overseas networks. In short, it’s as close to perfect as Aussie TV is ever going to get.