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TV Tonight: Rake

Fox's newest problem-plagued hero is no Don Draper, but if he works at it, maybe he could be Jim Rockford.

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Richard Foreman/FOX

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the protagonist of this drama, a talented but self destructive middle-aged man–oh, OK, you have?

OK, so you’ve seen a lot of versions of Rake‘s antihero Keegan Deane (Greg Kinnear), a gambling-addicted defense lawyer who scurries through life, and this comic drama’s pilot, constantly 30 minutes late (to his regular appointment with a prostitute) and tens of thousands of dollars short (on a debt to a bookie). You’ve seen the grim cable version of him on Ray Donovan, the charismatic cable version of him on Mad Men, the network-TV version of him on House, M.D., and so on.

There are worse things to overdose on than charming scoundrels, and Kinnear is playing to his strengths as an ethics-challenged attorney getting by on fast talk and a grin. But while tonight’s first episode of Rake (the only one given critics, besides an earlier version of the pilot that was remade since last spring) is–well, rakishly–amusing, it’s not really enough to give a sense of what kind of show this will be, and whether it’s worth sticking with.

On the one hand, it seems that Rake is a law procedural that’s not too fixated on being a great law procedural; Keegan’s first case, defending an accused serial killer, mostly takes a back seat to his financial, business, and family woes and the general introduction of his character. On the other hand, his character, while entertaining enough, isn’t the kind of magnetic draw that Hugh Laurie’s crabby genius immediately was in House. Nor is he yet compelling enough to sustain a serial appointment drama, as opposed to something you’d contentedly half-watch to while balancing your checkbook.

There’s a sense that the first episode–like it’s protagonist, butting off a creditor or a judge–is stalling for time. And it does a good enough job vamping for an hour. But you get the sense that the show (which smoothed the lead’s rough edges both from the original pilot and the Australian original it was based on) is vacillating. Maybe it wants to be the kind of raw indictment/worship of reckless masculinity we’ve seen on cable (the kind specialized in by Rescue Me, which Rake’s co-producer Peter Tolan made with Denis Leary). Or maybe it wants to be a more picaresque version of House, with a little less genius and a little more self-degradation.

The show might be better off going with the latter–it’s not likely to beat cable at its own often-played game anyway–and doing what network TV can still do well: telling good legal stories, and letting Keegan’s character play out through and around them. After all, creating charming rascals is something that TV was doing long before the prestige-cable era, and maybe the best version of Rake would do better to look back for inspiration to James Garner. Think of it as The Rakeford Files.