Review: Ray Donovan

Andrew Weber blogs about TV at  The Drug of the Nation. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Liev Schreiber is RAY DONOVANAfter an opening which shows Jon Voight getting out from prison, Ray Donovan begins like a USA program; I could even imagine the narrator explaining the premise, with something like this.  “Ray Donovan, LA’s fixer to the stars, is the best at what he does.  The rich and famous have problems, and he, along with his super team, including the accent-challenged Avi and the spunky lesbian Lena, fix them.”  We quickly see just how effective they are when they solve two problems with one stone, getting a sports star who woke up next to a women who ODed overnight out of his situation by swapping in an actor who was dealing with accusations of having picked up a transvestite hooker.  See, for actors, being found next to a dead woman ain’t no thing.  Hollywood!

We also see that Ray is a bit of a rebel.  He doesn’t play by the rules, and that sometimes gets him in trouble with his team, and his boss, who is played by the always wonderfully sniveling Peter Jacobson.  Supposed to spy on a woman for a scummy rich dude, he instead warns the woman, who he happens to know from an earlier encounter, of a stalker.  He then proceeds to make out with her.  He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty either, threatening the stalker, covering the stalker in green die, and then beating him with a baseball bat when his earlier threats don’t succeed.

Ray is a very serious character who comes from a very fucked up Boston Irish-Catholic family (if you can’t recognize the Boston accent from real life, you should recognize it from Ben Affleck movies over the years).  His dysfunctional family includes his two brothers, one of whom was molested by a priest as a child and is now an alcoholic, and the other who developed Parkinson’s from one too many shots to the head during a boxing career.  His sister jumped off a building years ago while drugged up.  And his dad, whom he hates most of all, just got out of prison after 20 years and is coming to find him and his wife and kids, whom are the last people Ray wants his dad spending time with.

So those seem to be the two main threads of the series, his job and his family, all shaken up now by the reappearance of his hated dad after many years.  Ray’s got to balance his job, doing terrible things for rich people, with his inner sense of right and wrong, and he has to be the rock in his otherwise fucked up family, keeping together his troubled brothers while fending off his father.  I half expected the narrator to announce during a credit sequence, “This is the story of a family from Boston living in LA, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.”

Ray’s got to do it all, and you can probably understand why he doesn’t crack a smile during the episode, or, really, say more than maybe 50 words.  His silence and straight face imbue him with some combination of mystery, intimidation, and sex appeal, to the different characters in the show.

Ray Donovan was not a bad show, but it was a surprisingly generic show.  Rather than seem inherently different and new, it seemed like it was trying to take some of the same themes that show up all the time on broadcast and the “light cable” (TNT and USA) networks and give them some serious edginess so that you know it’s premium cable.  Ray gets drunk.  Ray considers screwing a post-adolescent pop star who adores him.  Ray beats up a man with a baseball bat.  Unlike in an USA show as well, Ray’s job involves not infrequently doing what all involved admit are terrible things.  These facets made the show darker and give it a wider swath of possibilities for future development; shows on Showtime are allowed to have more complicated, serial plots, that USA shows can’t or won’t. However, nothing in this first episode takes advantage of those possibilities.  It seems more like a matter of degree than a fundamental difference from that classic USA or TNT format.

Ray’s got demons, and he’s going to have to face these demons.  He’s great at a really cool but risky job.  I can see the avenues worth exploring,   The tensions between his old family and his new.  The moral difficulties of committing terrible acts as part of a living because that’s his job. There’s clearly a mystery to his past, and to what he did to ensure his father stayed in prison and why.

I liked the family plot better than the work plot from the first episode, but still it hewed a little too close to cliché.  These clichés can be broken with the detail and depth that hours and hours of a television series can offer, which is one major advantages over film.  Still, I wish the pilot had delved deeper into one area of Ray Donovan’s life to try to really heighten the appeal and show off a little early complexity rather than throw the kitchen sink of potential plots (his family, his brothers, his work, his mentor) but attack them all on a surface level just as a preview of all the characters you’ll be seeing this season.  There was no semblance of focus.

The genericism of the story lines isn’t necessarily something that can’t be transcended through further episodes.  In the first few episodes, Justified looked like a simple procedural with a cop who didn’t play by the rules before it grew into something excellent.  I enjoyed the first season of Hannibal, which hardly breaks new ground, greatly.  Still, it’s hard to make this type of show work without a charismatic lead.  What everyone in the show saw as mysterious or silently uber-competent, I saw as stiff and uninterested.

There was enough that I was on the fence.  All I wanted was a five minute sequence in the episode that convinced me, damn, this is a show that is required viewing, a moving moment, a stirring speech, and a stunningly filmed confrontation, and then I could figure out exactly what’s good about it later.  I didn’t get that.

Will I watch it again?  Honestly, from this episode, probably not.  If it picks up buzz and I start hearing that it gets good, I’m perfectly willing to give it a second chance, and I do think there’s a non-negligible chance that I’ll have given it a couple more episodes before the end of the season.  My expectations are always ramped up a little bit for premium cable shows and I was kind of let down, less by the show being bad, and more by the protagonist not seeming particularly compelling, and the show not offering me at least a little something new or different or exciting me in any particular way.

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