Australian show rakes in ratings

By Sarah Lang

Hit dramedy is a mix of comedy and social satire, says Sarah Lang.

Rake has made Danielle Cormack a household name in Australia.
Rake has made Danielle Cormack a household name in Australia.

For a bit of light relief, I enjoy watching Rake, the critically acclaimed Australian dramedy about flawed but loveable defence lawyer Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh).

The second series begins tonight on TV One, a week after series one ended - we need our Rake fix.

Kiwi Danielle Cormack is fantastic as Scarlet Meagher: a criminal-prosecutions barrister, Cleaver's former flame, and wife of his best friend/colleague Barney (Russell Dykstra).

Cormack owns the central role of a perfectly polished perfectionist who spent most of season one in the emotional turmoil of divorce proceedings. She showed her acting range, going from cool, calm and collected to a vulnerable emotional wreck in a completely convincing way. Scarlet is a woman unlike any other she has played, but Cormack is known for choosing roles that challenge her anew.

Working on both sides of the Tasman, Cormack has had the chance to perfect her Aussie accent in recent years, especially with her star turn as ruthless brothel-owning criminal Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor.

This year she was nominated for an Astra Award for her part in Aussie prison drama Wentworth. But it is ratings darling Rake that has made her a household name in Oz.

She is not the only Kiwi stalking the set. Robyn Malcolm and her cleavage popped up in series one as Kirsty, the swinger wife of a crime boss, and we haven't seen the last of her.

Tonight, Cormack's Underbelly co-star Craig Hall (aka Outrageous Fortune's Nicky Greegan) turns up as the new husband of Cleaver's ex-wife, and Toni Colette also guest-stars. We see Cleaver defend the wife of an inept terrorist, paw a politician in a limo and aggravate a clown. But despite the silliness, the episode ups the pace and the stakes from season one by zeroing-in on Cleaver's wobbly relationships.

Rake achieves a delicate balance of risque comedy and shrewd social satire: of politicians, the media, and topics as touchy as prejudice against Muslims. It isn't afraid to get serious at times, but the humour remains centrestage in a show that is more comedy than drama. And it works, thanks to some seriously amusing writing, great acting, and a perfectly pitched lead character.

Yes, Cleaver is a coke-snorting, tax-evading gambler and womaniser who defends cannibals, bigamists and bestialists as his inability to resist temptation thrusts him from one catastrophe to the next. He causes chaos wherever he goes; as his psychologist ex-wife tells him, "you are the butterfly effect". But no one can stay cross with him for long, because he never means wrong.

And good luck trying to not like this eternal optimist with the razor-sharp wit, charm and charisma. He even shows occasional flickers of a moral compass. In the age of anti-heroes like Breaking Bad's Walter White and Mad Men's Don Draper, who are much harder to like, Cleaver is a rogue you can get behind.

Fox executives clearly thought so too, commissioning a US series of Rake with Greg Kinnear as the lead. But, so far this year, it has failed to rake in the viewers, and is unlikely to return for round two. I suspect the character of Cleaver is a uniquely Australian creation, and that Rake's mix of cheeky comedy and social satire is a uniquely Aussie recipe, with a dash of Kiwi talent.

Rake's second series begins tonight on TV One, 9.30pm.

- Herald on Sunday

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