The anti-hero has dominated cable television for almost a decade now, and is one of the main reasons it has begun to lure away ratings from the networks. It allows for provocative and visceral television with almost a cinematic flare with protagonists that are complicated and deep. It has given us some of the most memorable and unapologetic characters in television history with the likes of Tony Soprano, Detective Vic Mackey, Jax Teller, Nancy Botwin, Don Draper, and Walter White.
Network television has tried to find their own heroes with a dark side, and they’ve delivered characters like Gregory House and Jack Bauer. It has always felt like they’ve remained on the surface level of the dark side and never fully been willing to plunge into the murky depths. In the case of a show like 24 that made sense, because in the end, we still wanted Jack to be our action hero. It has stopped network television from ever truly providing a compelling, morally ambiguous tale like The Shield or Breaking Bad. FOX almost appeared ready to finally tackle the challenge with the comedic drama Rake that introduced the world to Keegan Deane.
A Good Person in 60 Minutes or Less
In the series premiere, we were introduced to a gambling addicted, womanizing, lying, alcoholic, unrepentant loser. More specifically, the first ten minutes made us think that is who Deane would be, but then spent half the episode trying to already redeem him. The best anti-hero stories show the progression of a character’s beliefs and values over an extended period of time. We either see one fight towards redemption like Soprano or see one dip deeper into depravity like Mackey. Of course, they are still the protagonist and deep down there has to be things that make us root for them, but it also must be clear they’re conflicted and tormented souls.
Charm Gets You Far
Rake has the great advantage of having Greg Kinnear as the star. He is charismatic and energetic, and you instantly want to love him. It is this natural charm that makes it believable that Deane would still have friends and be able to win over woman despite being a broke asshole. When a series has a star with such strong and positive aura, it allows them to go to darker places with the character without risking the audience completely despising him.
The Network TV Challenge
Network television is believed to be hampered by both stricter regulations than cable but also by its need to appeal to a broad audience. Cable doesn’t have stringent guidelines on what is allowed and often is in the spot where it can cater more to a niche audience. The problem with the “niche audience” belief is that the ratings for many cable shows prove they’re grabbing a healthy chunk of viewers from networks. Risque shows like The Following and Hannibal demonstrate that with some creativity that often heavily implies rather than shows graphic content that it is possible to be visceral and unsettling on network TV.
The major question is can a network TV audience care about a seemingly irredeemable lead or at least be patient enough for him to eventually uncover his soul? The ratings for Rake would seem to be answering ‘no’. Is Rake floundering because Deane is unlikable or the story has been mishandled?
Differences Between Cable and Network
Cable television is often far more patient in their storytelling. They don’t live and die by their ratings the same way as network TV. It has become the place for the nuanced and rich narrative that present complicated and multi-layered characters. Shows like Breaking Bad and The Americans slowly build piece by piece in forming their characters and subtly introduce changes as characters organically grow with the situations they encounter. An entire episode could be devoid of action, because it is instead focused on character development or setting things up for future episodes. Many of these series aren’t meant to have episodes watched as standalones, but rather the series is best viewed as one very long motion picture.
Network television wants high ratings every night, and so it tries to pack as much action as possible. There is also the eye on future syndication, which means often they want each episode to tell an entire story. I admit this isn’t the case for every single network series as Revenge or Once Upon a Time episodes would be hard to follow without knowledge of previous ones in the series. Procedurals are popular for a reason, because an issue can be neatly wrapped up within an hour.
Can’t Rush a Good Thing
It is this mindset that is hurting Rake. The need to resolve things within one episode means that Deane has to redeem his behaviour every single week. In a cable series, he’d still be an egocentric and manipulative lawyer who can’t seem to land clients, because viewers would know the road to redemption could take seasons. Instead, we get painfully forced scenes where Deane strays out of character to try to encourage Scarlet to go through with the recommitment ceremony. Every single week Deane, the lawyer who has to bum offices from people who are out of town, suddenly proves to be an idiot savant when it comes to winning cases. It always ends up being so jarring and far-fetched, because it is almost impossible to think one so apparently talented can fail so badly at everything else in life.
The Procedural Problem
The procedural element of Rake is the series’ biggest albatross. It likely exists so there is an issue that can be tidily resolved each week while also making Deane look good. The major problem is that it almost always feels like an afterthought and never meshes well with the other stories in an episode. Episode four, “Cannibal,” the cannibal case was quirky and odd, but it was never really developed in any engaging way. It really just seemed to exist, because the writers believed there always needs to be a case on the show.
The series needs to scrap the procedural element. The cannibal storyline is one that could have been a side story stretched out over several episodes or maybe even the whole season. It would have at least stopped from the very lame magical video arriving to exonerate the accused. It is also really hard to continue to believe Deane is hard-pressed to get clients when he keeps landing them each week and winning against the odds in the most impressive of fashion. The accused should be begging for him to be their lawyer by now.
The biggest issue with the cases is they take away time for the material that makes Rake different. The relationship between Deane and Omar is equally sweet absurd, as Omar gives him advice in between landing punches on Deane’s skull. We almost never get more than one or two scenes with the two each week. Deane’s relationship with Mikki is just as underdeveloped, despite it being the one that makes him relatable and vulnerable without feeling forced. We could have an entire set of episodes devoted to the crazy stalker, but it will likely just be squeezed in with next week’s bigamy case. The relationships are what will allow Dean to grow and set up fresh stories that aren’t the typical and tired “must solve the crazy case” type.
Time for a Change of Address
Rake needs to get off FOX and moved to FX. It needs to be allowed to be an actual drama and push the cases into an even less significant role on the show. In the show’s current state, we have one week where Deane barely even cares his poor son is almost traumatized that he mistakenly got on the highway but then, a week later is risking his life to try to get Tony Hawk to make his son happy. There seems to be a fear of Deane becoming too unlikable. On FX where they have Russian spies and biker gangs as the protagonists, Deane would fit in just fine as a slimeball allowed many seasons to really redeem himself.
Analyzing Rake makes it seem like the anti-hero can’t work on network television. I don’t think that is true. I’m not really convinced the network audience is all that different than the cable audience. Rake suffers by not really committing to the anti-hero character. A dark and disturbed character can embark on provocative and challenging stories without offending network censors. A network just has to be willing to embrace the anti-hero, and allow the character to make all the mistakes and sins one would expect from the deeply flawed.
Right now is the perfect time for networks to try to make a show centred on a real anti-hero as that type continually grows in popularity on cable. It isn’t too late for network television to gradually shift away from their current predictable formula. Even if the time is sadly about up for Rake.
(Image courtesy of FOX)