May. 4th, 2014 01:59 pm
leaflitter: Leaf litter (Default)
[personal profile] leaflitter
Some rather disorganised notes on Rake, the original Australian series (I haven't seen the US version), since it's managed to get me to watch it through 22 episodes now (2 to go), which is almost unheard of for me and TV.

First a warning: it's used trans women, including slurs, as a passing joke, and a crossdressing man and woman (I think? the script didn't make a definitely statement either way) as an on-screen joke. It's been called out elsewhere for using prison rape for jokes too. Which makes it unwatchable for some of my readers. (Not far off at times for me. Knock it off, media.)

Here's the pretext, which will also help you decide if you give a toss: it centers around a grandiose, self-absorbed individual (Cleaver Greene) whose narcissism is justified. Not metaphysically, but merely insofar as the world really does revolve around him, as if by coincidence. All his ex-lovers are still to some degree emotionally tied to him. When his friends, frenemies and rivals can't sleep with him, they all sleep with each other and tell him about it. Opposing counsel all hate him, personally.

And that works about as well as it would on any mere mortal, let alone a mere mortal who, however acerbic and clever, mostly wants a lot of women to like him as often as possible.

As an example, one of Cleaver's antagonists, David Potter (Harry-sorry-David Potter, Matt Day made up to look like Daniel Radcliffe as Harry) is originally introduced as counsel representing the Australian Tax Office, suing Cleaver over tax fraud. But within a few episodes, Harry-sorry-David is both universally known by that nickname, which Cleaver gave him, and he's unknowingly fallen in love with retired sex worker Melissa, one of Cleaver's many one-true-loves. Later, in season 2, a very politically significant figure in multiple countries is killed not by assassination, but in an act of revenge related to one of Cleaver's exes.

I saw a critique of this dynamic in the US version ("there's only ten people living in Los Angeles and they all know each other??") but it really works for Sydney, whose population of barristers is mostly fed by two universities, and whose law students mostly enter as 18 year olds and so many have known each other their entire adult lives. And that's when they don't know each other from high school.

And it's written in the language of Sydney visually. Cleaver lives in Kings Cross, ever renewing red light district, because of course he does. David lives in Lilyfield, later-gentrifying working-class suburb, because of course he does. Everyone went to Sydney Uni, because of course they did. Everyone's kids were delivered by the same obstetrician, because of course they were. (In reality, this one, apparently. In Rake, Sam Neill.)

The first season was very case of the week, with Cleaver serving as barrister to all the most lurid crooks. But one of the reasons I've kept watching is that it hasn't shied away from this question of what happens when the world really does revolve around your cynical and often weak-willed self, including moving well away from its formula. Cleaver's moderately lucrative career as barrister to all of the most newsworthy criminals is not immune to this misfortune. His life is (because it's comedy), and his relationships don't suffer permanently (because that's the conceit, no one can quit Cleaver), but his career is game. The show works for me because at least some of Cleaver's perils are real.

It also works because the acting is really fabulous. Richard Roxburgh has called in all the favours, from all the everyone. (There are only 10 actors in Australia, and they all know each other.) Particular nods to Roxburgh as Cleaver, Danielle Cormack as Scarlet Engels (Cleaver's university-era love-of-his-life, now married to his best mate who is also his usual instructing solicitor), Caroline Brazier as Wendy (Cleaver's ex-wife and mother of his son, who still acts as his therapist). And a few of the one-note characters (Robyn Malcolm as Kirsty Corella, Steve Le Marquand as Col) and many of the guest stars (Hugo Weaving as the cannibal economist, Sam Neill as the bestiality-practicing obstetrician, Rachel Griffiths as the rabal-rousing talk show host, Cate Blanchett as the on-screen version of Cleaver, Martin Henderson as Julian-Assange-by-another-name*)

Which brings me to season 3:

The prison episode was compelling because of the degree to which they messed with the formula. Consider: it has a cold open. It has a first person narration. The narration is from beyond the grave. What in Rake's metaphysics or custom has prepared us for this? Nothing.

It also nicely continued the theme of there only being 10 people in Sydney. Apparently this extends to criminals, and, since high ranking justices are being jailed one by one for corruption, about 5 of them are the same people.

And finally, they messed with everyone revolving around Cleaver! In jail, it turns out, everything revolves around… Kirsty.

This ends up being part of what doesn't work about this episode, actually. Kirsty's various lovers have worked up until now, in various tropey sorts of ways. She's Mick's wife. Mick kills Nigel because he is a Scary Crime Boss and that's what a Scary Crime Boss does when someone is interested his wife (other than for swinging, which is totally legit, because this is Rake and something has to not fit the trope). Kirsty is interested in Cleaver because she has power over him, and she is a Fully Self-Actualised Lady of Crime once Mick's in jail. (I think she's the only woman in the series to sleep with Cleaver without feeling any of the orbital pull of Cleaver, although Emily-the-homicidal-schoolgirl and Polly Nesbitt both use mostly him to further their own ends also.) Col is in love with in Kirsty because of another trope, The Loyal Sidekick of the Bad Husband who is Actually The One For Her. (Their thuggy love, so cute.)

So far so tropey. Then things get weird because it turns out that Mick has a Scary Evil older brother, long since jailed, who is also obsessed with Kirsty. To be honest, I think this is a production problem. I think the episode was written to feature Mick as the villain, and Richard Carter wasn't available for it, so they had to write in a brother and make him bad enough to have killed Mick. Either that, or they couldn't figure out how to have Cleaver, who'd slept with Kirsty, survive the anger of a man who'd already had someone dismembered for having a mere flirtation with her, and this is how they wrote around it.

Honestly, I think Cleaver could get into plenty enough trouble in jail without the centre of the series spinning off to have everything briefly orbit Kirsty. (However much I'd like to see this series with, say, Deborah Mailman playing the charismatic fallible centre of the universe, it is written with a man at the centre and I think it's stuck with it.)

And the rest of the season is, I think, trying to do too much, although it's very funny. Let's see.

There's Barney's manpain. Actually if there's one thing I wouldn't miss from this series, it's the Barney of S2 and S3. Cleaver's eyerolling sidekick? Sure, great, have that trope, you probably need it. Barney with cancer trying to work out What It All Means? Go take a hike.

Actually, the other thing I wouldn't miss is the writing of Scarlet. If the series needs a neurotic woman, and I'd argue it doesn't, but if it does, does she have to be the Woman Whose Obvious Continual Dysfunction Makes Her Continued High-Powered Job A Mystery? We can infer that she must be a good barrister (she's a silk in S3) etc, but all we see are tantrums and political flubs. Really not a fan. I love the acting, but this is the worst written character. (And it's competing with beautiful-vulnerable-ex-sex-worker-with-a-heart-of-gold, which is no mean feat. Actually, if I ignore the awful tropey-ness of Melissa, I think that character is well written.)

There's the attempt to squeeze all of NSW and Australian politics into the season. One episode got drugs in sport, clerical sexual abuse and the corruption of the Labor Party? Yikes. In S1, a cannibal got his own damn episode.

There's the mystery. Who made $120 million of trades (in the name of a character I think we're meant to care about without any screentime) and why? Presumably it's related to the what was in the email that Paulie accidentally hit Reply-All on mystery. This has had all of about 7 minutes on-screen.

There's the attempt to skewer both James Packer and Gina Rinehart in the person of Tikki Wenton ("second richest woman in Australia" has been repeated about six times, maybe so Rinehart — richest woman, in fact, richest person, in Australia — can't sue the producers over this depiction?)

There's the career triumphs of Cal McGregor, who is an amazing Slimy Shameless Antagonist (kudos Damien Garvey!) which are again mostly offscreen. We assume his TV show is top of the pops, I guess? It's not shown. This was done a lot better in S2, where McGregor had to interact with other politicians onscreen in order to be portrayed as The Politician to End All Politicking. (For that matter, David Potter ins S3 as state opposition leader seems to have a life without colleagues or an actual job, but at least they lampshade this.)

But that said, I think I'm much happier with S3 than I would be if it was the third season of bizarre crime of the week plus Cleaver has sex with someone. Rake's attraction to me is that Cleaver has to pay some of the price (a comedic rather than tragic price) for being centre of the universe.

Perhaps its ambitions this swasin, both achieved and not, are due to Roxburgh, who apparently wants S3 to be its conclusion, and has been co-showrunning S3 as well as starring.

* I am no fan of Assange, but in this universe, a character with that level of fame and self-absorption really works as a foil, and I wish "Joshua Floyd" had stuck around.
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