Perhaps the squishy ambivalence of "Rake" (9 p.m. ET Thursday) is somehow appropriate to the show. Its lead character, Keegan Deane (Greg Kinnear), can't quite decide what kind of man he wants to be, and the show can't seem to decide what it wants to be, either.
"Rake" chronicles Deane's disheveled attempts to represent unsavory clients, and the criminal defense attorney's first case involves an alleged serial killer. The rest of his clients are "always guilty," he unashamedly admits early in the pilot, a moment that helps establish that Deane is no starry-eyed crusader for justice. That's not a bad premise for a show, but I'm not quite sure "Rake" has found a unique or compelling way to depict the battle between cynicism and hope within its lead character, who's constantly teetering on the edge of one crisis or another.
At times, "Rake" seems to be running from the fact that it is, actually, a law procedural. It works hard to cover that up with other bits of business, but why not just make the central case really interesting? Instead, we're treated to a lot of gags involving a fish and one more serial killer narrative in a TV scene that reached peak capacity in that arena some time ago.
Perhaps the law stuff doesn't seem all that fresh because "Rake" is more interested in being a character study. Fair enough, but that aspect of the show features another set of tropes that have been nearly exhausted in the last decade and a half. Many TV narratives -- some of them great -- have asked the question, "Can the irresponsible/addictive/ troubled man see the light and become somewhat less thoughtless, self-sabotaging and selfish?" "Rake" isn't terrible, but it has to be better than it is in its first hour to deserve a shot at answering that question, which has been answered so well on many other shows.
Kinnear does what he can with Deane, but in the first hour, there's not enough depth or texture to the fast-talking lawyer to make "Rake's" somewhat frantic atmosphere worthwhile. I've seen my share of anti-heroes, and you, Keegan Deane, are no Don Draper.
I wish I could say I enjoyed "Rake" (a remake of an Australian series); I was a big fan of the first few seasons of "House," and with interesting enough stories and a charismatic character at its core, "Rake" could have perhaps been a law-oriented take on that kind of smart-curmudgeon show. Kinnear is up to the task, and the cast around him has some standouts, particularly Miranda Otto as his ex-wife. But as a character portrait or a law drama, something's off about "Rake."
The thing is, "Rake" wants us to like Deane, even though he owes a lot of money to bad people, abuses the hospitality of the friends putting him up, hasn't paid his secretary in ages and treats a nameless woman in the pilot as if she's entirely disposable. Like the rest of the women on the show, she reacts to Deane with a mixture of tolerance and bemusement, but I'm not quite sure why. He's not as endearing as the show seems to think he is, and though he can be effective in the legal arena, nothing about the case of the week is all that memorable.
Part of the problem is "Rake's" diffidence about how bad a guy Keane is supposed to be. He's clearly a raging narcissist, yet the show deflects that aspect of his personality and tries to make him seem a little bit adorable. If we're supposed to fear that the worst aspects of his personality will land him in serious trouble, the tidy resolutions of various story points in the pilot seem to preclude that possibility. As I said, "Rake" isn't a bad show, it just doesn't appear to have the courage of its convictions.
As I've written before, the broadcast networks are stuck in a weird and difficult limbo: They still have to live up to their names and pitch their wares to a broad audience, yet those audiences have seen a lot and appear to be less likely to settle for the same old things, much less an attempted merging of cable and broadcast sensibilities that reeks of flop sweat.
"He's a lawyer -- but with a twist!" is not a formula that the big networks will ever stop trying to perfect. But the execution of that idea isn't quite up to par in the first episode of "Rake."