Cleaver Greene, the protagonal barrister of the Australian TV show Rake, will forever be one of my personal heroes. I don’t idolise him for his flaws, don’t get me wrong. I hardly aspire to be a drug addicted, self-destructive compulsive gambler or, worse yet, a lawyer. No, I admire ol’ Cleave for his nonchalance, his dogged persistence and his effortless, infinite charisma.
You could imagine my shock, then, when I heard that the character I love was being adapted to a US audience. Then, the compounded insult I felt when I heard that the US had rejected him and the show was cancelled in its first season. Why, though, did this solid gold Australian character drama fail to adapt to the US? Was it the womanizing? The drinking and the drugs? Was it his (lacking) moral fibre? Well, dear reader, I have an alternative suggestion. Perhaps the failure to translate has more to do with our antiheroes own failure. The American TV audience, though receiving of a morally questionable main character (Donnelly, 2012, p. 15), has a harder time empathising with a bad guy who just happens to be terrible at being horrible.
Recent years have seen the rise of the American antihero (Larabee, 2013, p. 1131), to commercial and critical success. Walter White, Frank Underwood (himself a British adaption) and Tony Soprano have all demonstrated the enthusiasm for good old fashioned bad guys. They all operate in managerial positions, they all demand and receive respect, they have minions and they succeed (Larabee, 2013, p. 1131). This is where the format for a popular antihero diverges from what Rake offers. Cleaver and his American counterpart, Keegan Deane, generally suck. They’re dominated by their vices, they get their asses kicked and frequently they don’t even win the court cases (willingly or unwillingly) an episode is based around.
Rake wasn’t helped but a lacklustre script and a cheesy, colourful presentation, but I suggest that even with an excellent execution of the translation the show would have failed. The charming, hopeless loser that is Cleaver quite possibly appeals en masse only to Australians and is completely incompatible with the majority of American viewers. I don’t have the resources, intellect or word limit to really explore the Australian psyche to explain why we love a loser, but it is an interesting trait. Even in our oldest folklore, the enthusiasm for a weak antihero is well displayed, be it through the reverence of a drunken bush ranger who forgot to armour plate his legs or a vagabond sheep thief that chose suicide when confronted by the law for his crimes against livestock (West, 2001, p. 127). This uniquely Australian cultural quirk is what makes Rake such a success here, but the exact reason why it would never find the same acclaim overseas.
I must admit, though, that I am a little bit relieved. It’s reassuring to know that not everything can be copy/pasted to commercial success on foreign shores, especially when that something is a TV show that you quite enjoy.
Donnelly, A 2012. “The New American Hero: Dexter, Serial Killer for the Masses”, The Journal of Popular Culture, vol 45, no. 1, pp. 15-26.
Larabee, A 2013, “Editorial: The New Television Anti‐Hero”, The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 1131-1132.
West, B 2001. “Crime, Suicide, and the Anti-Hero: “Waltzing Matilda” in Australia”, The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 127–141.