(Note: I’m generally able to stay away from spoilers, but I can’t promise it. This review will go where it goes. Consider this fair warning.)
Ray Donovan (Live Schreiber) is a fixer. Think Michael Clayton, unconcerned about
He also has a unique way of making his points. Early on he has a stalker dye himself green in his own bathtub. Why? To show Ray can get to him anywhere and at any time, and do whatever he wants. The green thing is Ray’s idea of a little joke. When the stalker—still green—scares hell out of the woman again, Ray beats him to death with a baseball bat. Fun’s fun, but enough’s enough.
The show’s greatest success to getting you to root for a sociopath. Ray does what he wants, and his methods are whatever he thinks will work best at the time. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a heart. He loves his family—though he sometimes has difficulty showing it in ways they can understand—and will go out of his way to make things come out right for a person caught in the middle. He saves his less sympathetic ideas for those who deserve it.
His families are key to understanding his character. He and his wife grew up in South Boston, but their two kids know nothing but LA. Abby (Paula Malcomson, Trixie in Deadwood), us still adjusting after what might be twenty years on the West Coast. Her character is harder to pin down than Ray’s. The Beloved Spouse and I are still trying to decide if Abby is bipolar or if the writers manipulate her mood to get Ray to react how they need him to.
The more compelling family dynamic is Ray’s blood family. Brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) is a washed-up fighter with Parkinson’s who runs a boxing gym in LA. Younger brother Brenden—a/k/a Bunchy (Dash Mihok) was molested by a priest and is an eternal emotional adolescent. Baby sister Bridget killed herself while on drugs back in Boston. We’re never told why all the boys came to LA, but it assumed they came with father figure Ray to get as far away from Boston as possible.
Ray is the father figure because the biological father, Mickey (Jon Voight) is as pluperfect a son of a bitch as has ever been created. Just released from 20 years in prison after being framed by Ray for one of the few crimes he didn’t commit, Mickey’s first act as a free man is to kill the priest who molested Bunchy, except—oops—he kills the priest’s innocent brother. Invited to LA by Abby—who knows nothing of the depth of animosity between Ray and his father—Mickey is more like a spear than a thorn in Ray’s side.
Schreiber was born to play Ray. Understated, yet eternally menacing, genuinely tender with his children. He’s the master of subtle expression and delivery, such as the time Ezra’s partner gets up in his face about how he’s tired of Ray not doing his precise bidding and how maybe he should just fire Ray and get it over with. Ray just gives the guy a flat look and says, very matter-of-fact, “I’m not the kind of guy you fire.”
Marsan is spot on as Terry, and Mihok gives an award-caliber performance as Bunchy, whose first purchase after getting $1.4 million as a settlement from the Church is to buy a bicycle with ape-hanger handle bars. Next he buys a house—a dump—and decorates his room as any ten-year-old would. His character is heartbreaking, never maudlin.
They’re all great, but Voight’s Mickey is the straw that stirs the drink. Schreiber is more than capable of carrying the show, but it’s the bad chemistry between Ray and Mickey that sets Ray Donovan apart. The pressure Mickey’s presence and bad influence has on the three brothers—plus half-brother Darryl, who works out at Terry’s gym—keeps the story constantly on edge. Ray has more than enough on his mind with work, the wife and kids, and his brothers, the man who has had to be strong while no one is strong for him. Mickey is the spinning plate too many.
The show is not without weaknesses. Ray’s overload sometimes seems a bit much, and the time frames in which events occur are not always reasonable. These faults are less overlookable than overwhelmed by the good points. Ray Donovan is a worthy successor to such premium cable giants as The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Maybe not quite as routinely excellent, but when it’s good—as it is a large majority of the time—it’s just as good.