The first thing anyone is likely to zero in on while watching Showtime’s new series Ray Donovan is the overabundance of talent the show has at its disposal. With Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Paula Malcomson, Eddie Marsan and the great Elliott Gould constantly standing at the ready, it is certainly an attractive show in terms of its potential to deliver powerful performances and memorable characters.
This is the tale of Ray, an East Coast tough guy, who has left behind a troubled past and relocated to Los Angeles with his wife, two kids and damaged siblings in tow, to stir up more trouble (a.k.a. “fix things”) in Hollywood at the behest of two powerful lawyers.
At first glance, the series is replete with all the trimmings that make up today’s pay-cable prestige dramas. It even hails from Southland creator Ann Biderman, who – considering she’s won an Emmy for her writing duties on NYPD Blue and co-wrote the screenplay for Michael Mann’s 2009 crime-drama Public Enemies - knows a thing or two about writing tough, morally conflicted men working around the criminal element.
But after looking at all the familiar faces and listening to most of them slather on thick Boston accents (with varying degrees of success), it is clear in this early effort the show hasn’t quite figured out how to do anything interesting with its surplus of talent.
For now, maybe that’s okay; Ray Donovan can work his way through superficially entertaining problems experienced by the Hollywood elite while battling his own inner demons in as few words as possible for a few more episodes before it will start to feel completely stale. By then, who knows? Maybe the series will have worked out what it is trying to say about the male condition that hasn’t already been expressed by a whole host of other shows that did it so well they’re now considered TV classics.
As it stands now, however, Ray Donovan is much like the character for which it is named: attractive and stylish, but decidedly opaque. And in that sense, the premiere episode, ‘The Bag or the Bat,’ has a lot of surface-level appeal, but as the episode progresses, it is defined less by what it is trying to say than by how it wants to say it – which is to say, with a lot of panache. Directed by go-to prestige cable drama guy Alan Coulter (whose resume includes The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Luck), the episode places L.A. and its massive, sprawling neighborhoods and Hollywood-centric way of life front and center.
In effect, the City of Angels becomes a defacto cast member, rounding out the supporting characters that, if nothing else, presents a powerful tool with a great deal of potential. Unfortunately, between introducing Ray’s family, his co-workers, bosses and clients, most characters are spread too thin to get much of a read on them. Ray’s brothers, the Parkinson’s afflicted Terry (Marsan) and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), a drug-addled victim of childhood sexual abuse, are afforded enough screen time to grant their characters some focus. But overall, with such an extensive cast, it feels like the series did itself and certain actors (Malcolmson and Gould, in particular) a disservice by trying to cram everyone into the story at once.
The result is a disorganized premiere that uses awkward dialogue and flashbacks to hurriedly fill in the backstory and provide context for the Donovan clan. As Ray’s wife, Malcolmson is asked to play the now standard, put-upon housewife, burdened as much by the demands of her husband’s less-than-conventional occupation as she is by his inability to remain faithful to her. And although Abby Donovan seems primarily obsessed with moving to a classier neighborhood and putting the Donovan kids into private school, at least we have an idea of what’s driving her – which is more than can be said for Ray.
Right now, it seems the only motivating factor in Ray’s storyline is his need to settle the score with his recently paroled father, Mickey (Voight), a man who appears to be every bit as volatile as his son, and every bit as enthralling to the other Donovan boys. However, beyond preventing Mickey from ingratiating himself into his inner circle, there’s no real sense of what Ray is all about as a character. In that sense, he’s a lot like Antony Starr’s nameless thief in Banshee; there’s plenty going on with him as a prototypical male anti-hero, but there’s little in the way of actual character lingering beneath that frighteningly calm visage.
Early on, Ray Donovan divides its time between watching shopworn archetypes navigate incredibly familiar territory, while occasionally commenting on Hollywood sleaze in such a sneering manner most of the humor tends to fall flat. Right now, rather than create a new demand by being wholly original, the show feels content to simply fill a perceived void in Showtime’s antihero niche.
But the series is still finding its direction, and with the talent involved, there’s still a good chance it will find a unique voice before too long. Here’s hoping the voice will be that of the character for which the series was named.
Ray Donovan continues next Sunday @10pm on Showtime.