While last night saw the greatest battle of mediocre-to-poor commercial television we’ve seen since A Current Affair and Today Tonight were locking horns in their race to the bottom, one of the best Australian series of recent years returned, albeit more quietly than Schapelle or INXS.
ABC1’s Rake has won critical acclaim throughout its first two seasons, whereas Seven’s INXS Never Tear Us Apart and Nine’s Schapelle haven’t exactly been met with a rapturous response. But INXS drew 2.8 million viewers, Schapelle, just over 1.3 million and the premiere of Rake’s third season, 942,000.
When Rake premiered in 2010, it drew just under 1 million viewers and maintained a fairly steady figure throughout its two seasons. But the commercial forces of Nine and Seven dominated so heavily last night (not to mention that Ten had the Winter Olympics with around 1.2 million) that Rake was bound to take a ratings hit.
The first episode of the new season saw Cleaver Greene (played by Richard Roxburgh in blistering form) behind bars. It’s a bold move to keep the action of an episode of a legal procedural entirely within the confines of a prison, but it creates a sense of claustrophobia, pushes the protagonist into new territory and changes the dynamics of their relationships. This is the best behind-bars TV since Orange is the New Black. Stepping so far away from the format that made the show resonate is a risk that has, in this instance, paid off.
The return of Rake to our screens coincides, roughly, with the premiere of the US version of Rake, which is now three weeks into its first season. Greg Kinnear plays the leading character (renamed Keegan Deane) and several of the Australian creatives serve as executive producers.
While the US Rake hasn’t been quite the critical flop that the misguided US remake of Kath and Kim was, it certainly hasn’t been met with the same kind of enthusiasm that the local series received, and ratings have been dropping fairly sharply since its premiere. The problem is that when Rake made the leap to a commercial US network, it had its edges sanded off, which makes it feel like, as many US critics have already noted, any number of other legal procedurals. It’s essentially Boston Legal, focused on just one character.
The legal and political plot points of the Australian Rake have always been intriguing (who could forget Hugo Weaving’s cannibalistic character in the pilot, or Toni Collette as NSW Premier?), but it was always Greene’s world and his relationships (particularly his relationships with women) that were the source of the best drama. In the US version, those relationships are developing a little too slowly (although Aussies Miranda Otto as Greene’s ex-wife and Bojana Novakovic as prostitute and love interest Melissa are both turning in fine performances) and there’s, arguably, too greater focus on the cases.
On the basis of the first three episodes, it’s hard to imagine that the US version could ever go into the territory that the original did in last night’s episode. It’s just too light, too risk-averse and too homogenously “neat”.
It’s not as if last night’s episode on ABC1 was revolutionary, by any stretch of the imagination, but that the creators behind the original Rake are willing to take any risk at all in the current TV environment is worthy of praise.
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rake creator Peter Duncan said that the major difference between making TV in Australia and in the US was that there are many more voices in the US. Do too many cooks spoil the broth? Well there’s a safeness so far that suggests this might be the case. If Fox is willing to take risks with their version of Rake, they might be able to develop an audience. If not, it will slowly morph into something audiences have seen time and again. And you can catch Boston Legal re-runs for that.