I’ve been interested to see how the ABC’s new ‘dramedy’ Rake was going to shake down and, at last, I have. My interest was due to, aside from the star-studded guest cast, the fact that I am far from averse to shows about lawyers. In fact, I regard these as essential to the continuation of society as we know it, given that virtually no lawyers I know who are my age would have gone anywhere near a career in the legal profession had it not been for the glory days of L.A. Law, particularly the depictions of breakfast meetings at which the lawyers of McKenzie Brackman had the opportunity to chow down on the mentally challenged Benny’s pastries.
I have to tell you, though, there are a couple of stalwart features of legally themed television shows that I would be delighted never to see again. My hopes in this area were dashed while watching Rake, which concerns the life and loves of improbably named and raffish barrister Cleaver Greene (of the hilariously tagged, presumably in order to avoid any possibility of defamation proceedings, ‘Welbourne Chambers’), a person who demonstrates his erudition by reading aloud the poetry of Lord Byron. First up, if there’s one thing I just can’t stand to see in a legal television show, it’s a wacky case. Yes, I appreciate that the writers are labouring under the imperative of making the act of watching someone carry out their work as a lawyer be vaguely entertaining, but I have just never been able to deal with the creaky turn into humour that comes with the defendant who has Tourette syndrome, or who barks like a dog because he believes that he is of the canine persuasion. So, I wasn’t exactly cheering from the rooftops when it became apparent that the first episode’s legal conundrum was going to be based around the cannibalistic practices of one Professor Murray, played by Hugo Weaving, who utters lines such as ‘I’d bought a bottle of Krug’ in the same fruity tones he employed in After the Deluge when playing ageing ‘muso’ Martin ‘Marty’ Kirby.
Furthermore, the case raised a question or two in my mind. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert but given that there was video evidence of the man Professor Murray had eaten saying that he was going to commit suicide and was, apparently, only too pleased to be devoured, it seemed to me that a murder case based on the facts as we know them wouldn’t actually get past the committal hearing. However, I do appreciate the importance of having a trial scene that includes a crusty, white-haired old judge, bon mots from Cleaver Greene, and a jury to laugh amenably at said bon mots, so I’m prepared to forgive this, up to a point.
I could have gone further in my forgiveness, however, had it not been for the appearance, as certain as death and taxes, in Rake of a dinner party scene during which there is pontification on the morality, or not, of making one’s living as a lawyer. I would give a great deal never again to watch on television a scenario in which, to the accompaniment of the clink of wine glasses, the lurking presence of Smeg appliances and the murmur of appreciative laughter, we hear someone say, ‘But you get low-life crooks off!’ and a response from the particular lawyer that will unfailingly concern the concepts of the law and justice having nothing to do with each other, which is not, in fact, correct, but then, here I am being a stickler for detail again.
In any event, I am a grown woman and can accept that the likelihood of a television show about lawyers that doesn’t include wacky cases and a ‘But how can you defend people you know to be guilty!’ conversation is about as strong as that of the 102-year-old Harold Holt strolling into old Parliament House as though nothing had happened. What was more of an unpleasant surprise, given that we’re not actually in 1979, with Jack Thompson randying it up at the centre of The Journalist, is the role that the female sex has so far been given to play in Rake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of tokenism and always found the preponderance of black female judges in L.A. Law to be, unfortunately, about as grounded in reality as the plot of The Lord of the Rings, but I did find it strange that in 2010 Cleaver mixes with such a small subset of the ladies.
Apologies if I’ve missed anyone out but, by my reckoning, the females who regularly crossed Cleaver’s path in episode one were, in increasing order of importance (although the ex and the best friend’s wife possibly tie): Cleaver’s secretary; the cannibal’s wife (whom the cannibal had, naturally, told that human remains in the refrigerator were actually chicken fillets); the mother of Cleaver’s child and, presumably, his ex-wife, who enjoys chatting understandingly with him about the fact he’s in love with a prostitute and the fact that, while he apparently has money to throw around at high-class brothels, he hasn’t been coughing up for school fees; Cleaver’s best friend’s wife, who is obviously madly in love with him (and notes at one point, ‘I’m a woman, I internalise everything until I explode’, which is not, I have to say, my own experience with women) and is also willing to let Cleaver download about his being in love with a prostitute; and the prostitute herself, Melissa, who is unfeasibly unboilerish, looking as she does like a young Cybill Shepherd. Cleaver’s deep connection with Melissa is signified in part by their shared love of the game of backgammon.
When Melissa decides to get ‘off the game’ (prostitution that is, not backgammon; also, I’m quoting bona fide classic Sons and Daughters here, not Rake) and, natch, go to law school, she tries to resist any further involvement with Cleaver but can’t because she is, it’s plain to see, madly in love with him. But putting the fatal spell that the C Man casts on women to one side for a moment, it’s clear from the ending of the first episode that Melissa will be calling on Cleaver’s mighty brain for assistance with her legal studies. ‘It’s all Greek to me,’ she tells Cleaver, who, as sure as night follows day, responds, ‘Latin, actually.’
The possibility that Cleaver and Melissa are going to start dating raises a question that I’ve always wanted to know the answer to, which is that if you’re a sex worker and you start going out with a client, is it on some level irritating that you’re now putting out for free? (It would irritate me, I have to tell you, on the basis of ‘There goes that deposit on a holiday house.’) My only hope is that, in preference to serial wacky cases, this issue will be explored in Rake, as well as the viewers getting to witness Melissa finish her studies in time for Cleaver Greene actually to engage significantly with a female lawyer at some point in the course of the show. Then, perhaps, we really could see the bar actually be raised.