Monday, October 12, 2015

Ray Donovan Season One

(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 some any
legal niceties. Ray’s small company works for big-time Hollywood wheeler-dealer Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) doing whatever needs to be done to keep the talent earning. Married basketball players finds a dead girl (not his wife) in his bed? Call Ray. Someone’s about to release a gay video of a big action star? Call Ray. What’s really clever is how Ray folds separate problems into a single solution, and everyone comes out ahead, sometimes including Ray, who is not above picking up the stray bag of money. It’s not stolen—the previous owner knows Ray took it—but sometimes he delivers cash and persuades the recipient there’s a better deal to be had. It’s spent to the person who paid it, and the other guy has decided he’d rather have something else. Ray will give that orphaned money a good home.

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.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Second season is better still. About the begin 3.

Charlieopera said...

I was put off by Donavan's cool act, but John Vogit makes me watch the show with total enthusiasm. His character is the ultimate S.O.B., but Voigt plays him to perfection. Come to think of it, pretty much everyone else in the cast is wonderful. I don't doubt Schreiber is a great actor (I've seen him in some wonderful movies, including these two: A Walk on the Moon and Fading Gigolo), but I don't like the over-cool fixer they want for the show (not Schreiber's fault).

Dana King said...


We're 2/3 through Season 2 and it has some work to do to catch up to Season 1 for us. There are issues with plot construction, time sequences, and character motivations that are trouble through 8 episodes. Potentially major plot points arise out of the blue, events are presented as happening concurrently when one of them would have to take far longer, and some of the characters (notably Abby and the kids) seem to behave however the writers need them to in order to provoke the desired response from Ray. Still a good show, but its seams are showing.

Dana King said...

I agree with your comments about the acting, but I think Schreiber pulls Ray off well. He has Corky and me convinced he'd be the perfect Nick Forte.

Speaking of Liev Schreiber and hockey (okay, you weren't speaking of hockey, but I know you were thinking about it), have you seen GOON? It's no SLAPSHOT, but it was far more entertaining than I expected, and is worth watching just for the scene where the protagonist meets with the aging enforcer (played by Schreiber).

pattinase (abbott) said...

Anyone see him in Pawn sacrifice?

Dana King said...

No, but it looks interesting. We don't go out much, but that one will find its way to the Netflix queue.