Rake (season return)
Thursdays, 8.30pm, ABC1
What's it all about?
When they were students at Sydney University, actor Richard Roxburgh and director Peter Duncan (Children of the Revolution) were fascinated by a "brilliant, busted and hopeless" fellow student who was always being beaten up for his outrageous, masochistic feats. Years later, Duncan, a disenchanted lawyer, met Roxburgh's friend Charles Waterstreet, a well-known Sydney barrister and columnist, who regaled Duncan with colourful yarns about life at the bar. They returned to memories of the antihero of their student days, and the idea of making a dramedy about an unconventional criminal defence barrister who fancies himself as a wordsmith gelled.
Enter Cleaver Greene (played by Roxburgh), a mischievous, womanising and seriously messed-up lawyer. The scourge of his profession, he's the brave defender of seemingly unwinnable cases involving bigamists, under-age prostitutes, suspected terrorists and even, in a memorable episode in season one, a cannibal.
What sets Greene apart from his better-heeled colleagues, apart from unpaid tax bills, is a voracious sexual appetite that he makes no attempt to suppress and a steadfast refusal to bow to the niceties of middle-class life. The establishment regards Greene as a reckless, irreputable rogue who likes to make trouble and thwart the good intentions of others. But the situations in which he is placed put those glib value judgments under the microscope.
In fact, Greene detests privilege, snobbery, the unaccountability of those in power and, paradoxically, much of the judiciary, and would never use the words promiscuity and morality in the same sentence. He nurses a broken heart for Missy (Adrienne Pickering), a high-class call girl with a chequered and unusual past who has opted for the security and respectability that conservative lawyer-turned-politican David Potter (Matt Day) offers her.
Season one ended with Missy heading overseas to make a fresh start in life. Having slept with Scarlett (Danielle Cormack), the wife of his best friend and professional colleague Barney (Russell Dykstra), Greene's already-fraught life is spiralling. And teenage son Fuzz (Keegan Joyce) seems to be learning all the wrong lessons from his father.
By the end of its maiden season in 2010, Rake had found its feet. It's a beautifully-scripted piece (by Andrew Knight and Peter Duncan) that's not afraid to be clever and smart and take a contrary view of topical issues. Best of all is its willingness to put intelligent, articulate, educated and comfortably well-off characters front and centre and to examine middle-class life, relationships and issues with insight and humour and in all their complexity. (Indeed, can you name another Australian TV drama that ventures into such turf, even though that's predominantly the make-up of the ABC audience?).
The well-plotted opening episode of season two establishes the over-arching storyline that will play out over the next eight episodes.
Cleaver's back-of-the-limo tryst with NSW Premier Claudia Marshall (Toni Collette, channelling more than one of the snarling and vicious characters she depicted in The United States of Tara) exposes something far more dangerous than the typical tabloid sex when it turns out that their longstanding relationship is compensation for her unhappy marriage to Attorney-General Cal McGregor (Damien Garvey).
To save her skin, Claudia claims that she is being blackmailed by Greene. But the thuggish McGregor, publicly humiliated by his sham marriage, sets out to trash Greene's reputation - not that Greene wasn't doing a good enough job of that on his own.
Meanwhile in the court room, Greene is defending a Muslim woman accused of terrorism after her husband accidentally blows himself up. While the court makes prejudicial assumptions about the woman, it slowly dawns on Greene that she is a step or more ahead of him and the court.
In a sentence
A smart, cheeky and funny legal series anchored around an antihero and courtroom trials that are designed to challenge our moral judgments.
The scene at the birthday party for Barney and Scarlett's son, where Greene not only finds himself in one of those situations that only he can manage, but the dreary and tired morality case about politicians and their sexual peccadillos is blown out of the water.
The opening scene in which Cleaver and Claudia have rough and dirty sex in the back of a limo. For a moment we thought we were on another channel watching Charlie Sheen.
Thursday, ABC1, 8.30pm
Worth watching again?
Grade: A. Top of its class.