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Rake Review: "Serial Killer" (Episode 1.01)

January 24, 2014  |  10:50am
<i>Rake</i> Review: "Serial Killer" (Episode 1.01)

The series debut of Fox’s Rake does its best to establish L.A. lawyer Keegan Deane’s bona fides as the ladykiller of the title, with Deane in the opening managing to seduce a one-night stand between a beating from a bookie’s muscle and sitting in on a late-night, high-stakes poker game. Later he brings the woman back to his best friend’s house, where he’s been crashing for months too long, and drinks all his pal’s best Scotch. Soon his car is towed, and the kids in his charge are hauled off to child services…in short, he’s irresponsible, self-centered and reckless. But for all that, the term “rake” seems a bit aggressive for what Keegan Deane is. He’s more a charmer than suave player, more of a boyish goof than a lothario.

Watching Greg Kinnear as Deane play poker to try to pay off his $59,000 debt while his lady friend sleeps in the background brings to mind a quote from another committed screw-up. In Rounders, Edward Norton’s nightcrawling, deadbeat Worm has the nerve to tell Matt Damon’s Mike, “In the poker game of life, women are the rake.” In the gamble that is Deane’s day-to-day existence, where the poker is about the only risk that turns out well, he knows that the women in his life aren’t to blame. His multitude of problems, both professional and personal, are of his own making. But his chances for redemption—and for the series to find an audience—may well turn on how much women take to this amiable rogue. It’s no accident that Kee’s winning poker hand is queens full.

Trying to create a bad-boy appeal for the character without turning him into a jackass is a difficult trick, and it may be why the show pulls its punches on his outrageous behavior. He has sex with his pick-up back at his friend’s house, but we don’t see them in the son’s bed together. Kee has an addictive personality, but drugs don’t seem to enter the picture. Even his drinking leaves him little the worse for wear. Without those transgressions on full display, Kee’s edge softens. More vexingly, Kinnear doesn’t hint much at Deane’s driving demons; without that sense of danger, the show may work better as comedy than as drama. And Kinnear does have good timing—he consistently feels funny, even if there aren’t a ton of laughs in this episode.

Rake plays off the formula of Fox’s long-running hit House, with a troubled central figure fascinating for his flaws and saved by his brilliance. But Deane at first viewing is neither as smart nor as much of a lunatic as House, and in any case, the Hugh Laurie character Kee more closely resembles is Bertie Wooster in the old Jeeves & Wooster series: an addled but good-natured bon vivant and reluctant solver of problems, more feckless than devil-may-care.

He solves his clients’ problems, that is, as his own continue to pile up. He seeks refuge with women: his ex-wife (and current shrink), Maddy; his best friend’s wife and assistant DA, Scarlet; the punctual prostitute, Mikki, and his loyal secretary, Leanne. They’re the ones who keep him going, and they all are some mix of frustrated and tender with him.

If Kee fails as husband, lover, father, friend, debtor, you name it, where he does shine (at least in theory) is as a defense attorney. In this episode, he represents Jack Tarrant, played by Fargo’s Peter Stormare (memorable as always, but wasted without a woodchipper). Jack is known as the Westside Ripper for a string of murders around L.A., but Kee sniffs out some shenanigans by the chief of police, who induced Jack’s confessions. Or most of them, anyway—Kee, flashing the copyediting skills that helped him crush the bar exam, figures out that Jack actually committed the first of the murders.

This twist resolution works well enough, although Kee’s lawyerly brilliance isn’t up to House speed yet. The show is based on an Australian original created by Peter Duncan, who is also heavily involved with the U.S. version, writing as well as producing. Duncan, who quit a legal career himself to be a writer, apparently is still coming to grips with the differences between Australian and U.S. law. Maybe once that’s sorted out, the legal intricacies will grow more compelling.

An odd but somehow winning storyline involves Kee trying to cash in a contraband Pacific Bluefin he receives as payment from a client. Its comic decay chimes with Kee’s own, even introducing a melancholy note. But while the fish works as metaphor, logically speaking it makes no sense whatsoever. Keegan evidently lugs the cooler holding the fish everywhere he goes, over the course of a day or so (judging by the freshness of the fish) or weeks (judging by any reasonable time scale, including how long a murder case takes to go from plea hearing to a jury trial).

Still, this first episode (directed by the great and powerful Sam Raimi, with limited smoke and mirrors) accomplishes what it needs to, setting up Kee’s main allies and enemies. The battle with L.A.’s mayor, in particular, looks like it will better connect Kee’s personal and professional battles. I’d like to see things get a bit darker on both fronts, see him get just a bit less relatable, whether taking on the bad guys or dealing with those in his own circle. I want Kee to be the guy in the rated-R movie; right now, I’m a little too sure that I like him.

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