Ray Donovan

Created by Ann Biderman

“Oh, I know who you are. You’re a bagman for movie stars. You’re also an extortionist, you’re a wiretapper — basically, you’re an all-round piece of shit.”
— the LA director of the FBI has Ray’s number

Ever since American television grew up and started airing crime dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, I’ve hoped for somebody to really get serious about doing a private eye show of the same calibre.

And with the June 2013 debut on Showtime of Ray Donovan, it looked like my dreams had come true.

Or had they?

Because RAY DONOVAN isn’t quite a private eye — he’s more of a fixer, and as such operates as a sort of clandestine, high-priced spin doctor to the movers and shakers of Hollywood, not so much investigating crime as burying it.

Still, it certainly falls within the realm of this site. After all, what were such classic dicks as Dan Turner or Bill Lennox, really, except glorified Hollywood fixers, really?

But job classification is the least of this show’s problems. This series is a far cry from the free-swinging almost-innocence of Turner or Lennox’s pulps — replaced with a pervasive and all-too-knowing recycled cynicism that’s not so much transgressive and bold, as I’m sure its producer want us to believe, as it is tiresome and predictable. We’ve seen this all before. Done better.

Yeah, Ray’s pampered, callous clients should know better, but they have enough money not to care — or to care how Donovan does his job.

Okay, so this doesn’t exactly make his clients very sympathetic, or even very compelling. But what’s worse is that the way Ray solves their problems leaves him not particularly likeable, either.

Granted, he is efficient. Unfortunately, he’s efficient in the same way a great white shark or the AIDS virus is efficient. And neither of those is particularly likeable either. Sure, he occasionally comes up with some clever con or scam to protect his clients, but just as often he’s likely to resort to brute force.

And while Ray’s certainly got himself some style, it’s mostly in the glitzy, blingy accessories he decks himself with, not in the man himself. Sure, he lives the high life, all designer clothes, expensive watches, , guns and cars and a downtown fuck pad. But while cutting a swath as Mr. King of Hollywood, he’s got his family tucked away in the see-nothing, know-nothing middle class anonymity of an upscale suburbia.

Although that may be a blessing — ignorance in this case ensuring a sort of willing familial bliss. Because when it comes to protecting his clients, this daddy plays dirty. Arson, torture, blackmail — you name it, Ray’s up for it. And that includes murder.

The hypocrisy of the soul-searching, hand-wringing domestic scenes where we’re supposed to believe that Ray’s a stand-up family man (despite the adultery, the lies, the fuck pad and the lack of any attempt or apparent desire to have any kind of actual relationship — or conversation — with his wife or kids), just doesn’t ring true. No matter how many post-calamity shots we see of Ray reaching for a bottle, which I guess is supposed to tell us that deep down he’s hurting. (The nadir of this hypocrisy is the fifth season, where — in a series of cloying flashbacks — we’re supposed to believe that Ray is terribly broken up over the death from cancer of the same wife he’s treated like shit for the past four seasons).

Instead, Ray comes off just as venal, self-absorbed and selfish as his clients. We’re told he’s struggling to do the right thing, but we’re rarely given any evidence to prove it (arranging a play “date” for his son with a suspected pedophile? Really?). The truth is that the hairy, beady-eyed Ray (played to nasty perfection by Liev Schreiber) seems like just another spoiled, brutal prick; a gorilla in a nice suit; a glowering, humourless thug whose favourite weapon isn’t smarts or cunning or charisma, but a baseball bat.

Tony Soprano was a charmer by comparison  — and infinitely more compelling. He wasn’t particularly likeable either, but at least he was interesting. A little humanity can go a long way. Ray? He’s about as cute as a piss jar.

Ray lies, he cheats, he kills. Sure, he has family issues. And some long buried psychological issues (yawn) dating back to his childhood are hinted at, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the forehead. But they’re all issues we’ve seen before — and all done better. Nor did transporting the whole clan from South Boston (does Dennis Lehane get royalties?) and all their emotional baggage to LA doesn’t really make any of it seem particularly fresh — it seems more like an unintentional retooling of The Beverly Hillbillies for a newer, more jaded age; one that needs a daily dose of cheap shock-and-awe to stay focussed.

It’s the release of Ray’s father Mickey, played with punch drunk charm and a conniving, unpredictable brutality by Jon Voigt, that sets the series in motion, and adds a much needed burst of off-kilter menace to the proceedings, but most of the backstory reads off like a checklist.

Mickey’s just out of prison (check) for a murder (check) he might have been framed for by Ray. One brother, Bunchy, was molested by a Irish-Cartholic priest as a child (check) and is possibly gay (check) or at least sexually and mentally damaged (check) and a drug addict (check) and the other brother, fight trainer Terry, is a psycholigically ravaged cripple who’s really a gentle soul (check). And just to make sure there’s some good old Catholic grief and bursts of mawkish mourning to let us know these characters are “deep,” there’s a dead sister who killed herself as a teenager to feel bad about every now and then. Pass the Jameson.

Meanwhile, Ray’s “other family” consists of his shrill, social-climbing wife, mercurial Abby, who is blinded, for the most part, to her husband’s nastiness (at least as long as the cheques keep rolling in, presumably). She also shows stupefying levels of stupidity and duplicity of her own, ignoring her husband’s warnings and welcoming her father-in-law, just out of prison, into their home for a day with his grandkids, with little more than a few seconds hesitation. It doesn’t help that her alleged working class Boston accent is more bray than brogue.

As for the kids? The “good” daughter, smart and idealistic? The younger, messed up “bad” son desperate for a little paternal validation? Meh. Mr. Soprano called — he wants his kids back.

Sorry. Been there, seen it before. I’m not saying all antagonists need to be likeable, but there has to be something there, a speck or originality or humanity one can grab hold of emotionally. The template for Ray here may be more Walter White of TV’s Breaking Bad than Philip Marlowe, but both were far more complex and better written.

It says something about the main cast that I keep wishing there was more of Ray’s staff who, at least in the first few seasons, are relegated mostly to supporting roles. Both Lena, the short-tempered lesbian (check) office manager/researcher and the easy-going but lethal (check) Israeli muscle Avi (formerly with MOSSAD), are far more interesting and intriguing than Ray. There are hints of complexity and conflict in their past; but just enough to tantalize. Too bad the writers didn’t use such restraint elsewhere. And piling on such never-ending sideshows as incest, pedophilia, drug abuse, mental illness and racism doesn’t add any more depth any more than piling on the toppings makes a cheeseburger any less rancid. Ray and the other major characters are so overloaded with emotional baggage that you can’t see the humanity for the luggage.

And oh, how the show-and-tell cynicism gets tiresome! It’s so all-encompassing — not only in its past-their-due-dates plotlines and straight off-the-rack characters, but in the very way the show itself treats its audience. The writers and producers constantly opt for button-pushing over compelling stories. It’s like a prolonged car wreck, with the writers and producers reduced to highway patrolmen directly viewers around the weekly carnage, warning them to watch, but not too closely. “Please, keep moving. Don’t stop, don’t try to get involved. This doesn’t concern you.”

Unfortunately, they’re right. Sorry, guys, but by 2013, when the show made its debut, child-molesting priests, transplanted Southie thugs, slimy celebrities and blubbery Irish alcoholics were not exactly fresh and new and shocking, no matter how much moral dankness and bling you dress it up in. They’re just plot device buttons that have already been pushed elsewhere.

But what do I know? The show keeps coming back, saved in part by a talented cast, some great guest stars and some pretty nifty bits of Ray’s often clever bits of problem solving. Even the long-overdue death of Abby, and the suicide of Ray (due, purportedly to grief) at the end of season five wasn’t enough — somehow, he’s set to return in a sixth season, plying his trade in New York City.

“I want it all to stop,” Ray intones in the sixth season trailer.

I know how he feels.

TELEVISION

  • RAY DONOVAN
    (2013, Showtime)
    12 60-minute episodes
    Created by Ann Biderman
    Writers: Ann Biderman, Sean Conway, David Hollander, Ron Nyswaner, Michael Tolkin
    Directors: John Dahl, Michael Apted, Phil Abraham
    Starring Liev Schreiber as RAY DONOVAN
    Paula Malcomson as Abby Donovan
    and Jon Voight as Mickey Donovan
    Also starring Katherine Moennig as Lena
    Steven Bauer as Avi
    Eddie Marsan as Terry Donovan
    Dash Mihok as Bunchy Donovan
    Pooch Hall as Daryll
    Kerris Dorsey as Bridget Donovan
    Devon Bagby as Conor Donovan
    and Elliott Gould as Ezra Goodman
    Guest stars: Frank Whaley, James Woods, Rosanne Arquette, Jay Thomas, Hank Azaria, Ann-Margaret, Wendell Pierce, Sherilyn Fenn, Susan Sarandon, Lisa Bonet, Stacey Keach, Dabney Coleman, Diane Ladd

    • SEASON ONEBuy on DVDBuy this Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    • “The Bag or the Bat” (June 30, 2013)
    • “A Mouth is a Mouth” (July 7, 2013)
    • “Twerk” (July 14, 2013)
    • “Black Cadillac” (July 21, 2013)
    • “The Golem” (July 28, 2013)
    • “Housewarming” (August 4, 2013)
    • “New Birthday” (August 11, 2013)
    • “Bridget” (August 18, 2013)
    • “Road Trip” (August 25, 2013)
    • “Fite Nite” (September 8, 2013)
    • “Bucky Fuckin’ Dent” (September 15, 2013)
    • “Same Exactly” (September 22, 2013)
    • SEASON TWOBuy on DVD Buy this Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    • “Yo Soy Capitan” (July 13, 2014)
    • “Uber Ray” (July 20, 2014)
    • “Gem and Loan” (July 27, 2014)
    • “S U C K” (August 3, 2014)
    • “Irish Spring” (August 10, 2014)
    • “Viagra” (August 17, 2014)
    • “Walk This Way” (August 24, 2014)
    • “Sunny” (August 31, 2014)
    • “Snowflake” (September 7, 2014)
    • “Volcheck” (September 14, 2014)
    • “Rodef” (September 21, 2014)
    • “The Captain” (September 28, 2014)
    • SEASON THREEBuy on DVD Buy this Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    • “The Kalamazoo” (July 12, 1915)
    • “Ding” (July 19, 1915)
    • “Come and Knock on Our Door” (July 26, 1915)
    • “Breakfast of Champions” (August 2, 1915)
    • “Handshake Deal” (August 9, 1915)
    • “Swing Vote” (August 16, 1915)
    • “All Must Be Loved” (August 23, 1915)
    • “Tulip” (August 30, 1915)
    • “The Octopus” (September 6, 1915)
    • “One Night in Yerevan” (September 13, 1915)
    • “Poker” (September 20, 1915)
    • “Exsuscito” (September 27, 1915)
    • SEASON FOURBuy on DVD
    • “Girl With Guitar” (June 26, 2016)
    • “Marisol” (July 3, 2016)
    • “Little Bill Primm’s Big Green Horseshoe” (July 10, 2016)
    • “Federal Boobie Inspector” (July 17, 2016)
    • “Get Even Before Leavin'” (July 24, 2016)
    • “Fish and Bird” (July 31, 2016)
    • “Norman Saves the World” (August 7, 2016)
    • “The Texan” (August 14, 2016)
    • “Goodbye Beautiful” (August 21, 2016)
    • “Lake Hollywood” (August 28, 2016)
    • “Chinese Algebra” (September 11, 2016)
    • “Rattus Rattus” (September 18, 2016)
    • SEASON FIVEBuy on DVD
    • “Abby” (August 6, 2017)
    • “Las Vegas” (August 13, 2017)
    • “Dogwalker” (August 20, 2017)
    • “Sold” (August 27, 2017)
    • “Shabbos Goy” (September 10, 2017)
    • “Shelley Duvall” (September 17, 2017)
    • “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” (September 24, 2017)
    • “Horses” (October 1, 2017)
    • “Mister Lucky” (October 8, 2017)
    • “Bob the Builder” (October 15, 2017)
    • “Michael” (October 22, 2017)
    • “Time Takes a Cigarette” (October 29, 2017)

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Report submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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