If you happen to run into Rake cocreator Peter Duncan on the street, be nice. Not only is he attempting to repeat the success he had in Rake’s originating country of Australia, but he’s doing so at a network for which a new hit series could spell the difference between hand-wringing and respectability.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Duncan says. “Irrespective of the Australian show, it would have been a lot of pressure. It’s network TV. It doesn’t get much bigger.”
Fox could use a hit. Not that the broadcaster is alone in that, but it finished 2013 in third place among the Big Four in primetime, averaging a 2.3 rating among adults 18-49 for the season so far, just ahead of last-place ABC (2.2). That number puts Fox on pace to end 2013-14 down 8% from last season’s second-place finish—not a precipitous drop, but a continuation of a years-long slide. The 2012-13 season was down 22% from the previous year’s firstplace finish, itself down 9% from the year prior.
Hope of reversing the slope and beginning to catch NBC—which finished 2013 with a 3.1, but will have neither the NFL nor Maria von Trapp to help it through the season’s final months—rests in the winter-schedule rejiggering Fox did in November, when it appeared to cancel Dads, announced a hiatus for The Mindy Project and shifted the premiere of new drama Rake. The latter show had been slated to debut Jan. 19 after the NFC championship game. But that slot was handed instead to The Following, 2012-13’s midseason success story and highest-rated new show at a 2.6. Rake, from Sony Pictures TV, will instead premiere Jan. 23 in its permanent Thursday-at-9 time slot, after American Idol—whose own ratings slide has mirrored, and contributed to, the network’s.
Duncan, an independent filmmaker with five features under his belt, serves as showrunner for the Fox series alongside American TV vet Peter Tolan (Rescue Me). The new Rake stars Greg Kinnear as Keegan Deane, a criminal defense attorney with a chaotic personal life and clients who aren’t always wrongly accused. The original airs in Australia on national broadcaster ABC to, according to Duncan, “over a million people a week” in a country with a population of less than 23 million.
Original-recipe Rake was the brainchild of Duncan and the series’ star, Richard Roxburgh. The two are longtime friends, and had for years discussed doing a project together. But it wasn’t until they heard a tale of good old-fashioned interspecies love that Rake began to take shape.
“A mutual friend of ours who is a criminal barrister told us a story about this case in Tasmania involving a bestialite,” Duncan says. “And we suddenly thought ‘Wow, criminal law. That might be the world we’re looking for.’”
Duncan knew a thing or two about criminal law, having practiced it in his early 20s. He gave up his legal career after he was accepted to the prestigious Australian Film, Television and Radio School—making him the Australian analog to American TV writers such as David E. Kelley. But Duncan resists the comparison of Rake to U.S. legal dramas.
“It’s not that procedural, acquit-the-innocentperson- every-week sort of show,” he says. Rake focuses on the life of its lawyer protagonist rather than the outcomes of his cases. Duncan estimated that in Australia, where each episode is 57 minutes, “the case would be five minutes out of 57.” The Fox episodes clock in at 42½ minutes. “The case element of the show here is probably proportionally more” than in Australia, he says, but the focus on character remains. Though still involved with the Australian show, Duncan’s attention is focused on the Fox series.
Eat, Pray, Love
Much of the Australian series’ eyebrow-raising content also made it across the Pacific intact. Early in the Fox series, Kinnear’s Deane represents a self-professed cannibal played by Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story, True Blood)—and plans are, of course, in the works for a bestiality episode. “It’s just making sure that we do it in a way that avoids the wrath of standards and practices,” Duncan says.
Staying on the right side of the censors on broadcast TV means toning down the language and sex, both of which are areas where one can get away with more in Australia—or on cable TV in the U.S. But Duncan is pleased about having landed at Fox. “All the networks wanted it, and the cable companies were very happy to get into development deals,” he says. “But we had to go where we thought the fit was best.”
For Fox, importing a hit series from abroad is in keeping with a network-TV practice that predates even All in the Family and Three’s Company. But that practice has, according to industry analyst Peter Gardiner of Gardiner and Partners, become increasingly common in the last 4-5 years. Foreign adaptations can be cheaper to produce than domestic originals. And with more hours of television than ever being programmed, “Everybody’s looking for fresh, unique content, and there’s a lot of it offshore.” That content also enjoys the benefit of having already been vetted by audiences abroad. “It’s a pretty inexpensive test bed for U.S. programmers,” Gardiner adds.
But success in Australia—where the third season of Rake is scheduled to premiere in February—does not ensure success in the U.S., where the stakes are greater thanks in large part to the money involved. That money, according to Duncan, is the biggest difference between American television and the world he comes from.
“A lot more money is spent, and there’s potentially a lot more money to be made,” he says. “There are a lot of people who therefore have an interest in the show’s success.” —with reporting by Tim Baysinger