Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pilot Review: Ray Donovan

Ray Donovan (Sundays at 10:00 on Showtime; Premieres June 30)

I'm going to be in the minority on this show, and I'm okay with that: I really do not like Ray Donovan. I can recognize its potential and its positive attributes, and I can understand what others will enjoy and find praiseworthy in it (namely the performances and the overall darkness of the show). But for me, Ray Donovan is predictable, slow, and glowering.

Liev Schreiber is the title character, a Hollywood "fixer" transplanted from Boston. He spends his days fixing his rich clients' problems, from what to do when one wakes up next to a dead hooker to repairing the reputation of a ladies man who was caught blowing a cross-dresser. And Ray will use any means necessary to achieve his desired result: extortion, threats, even a baseball bat. He ran away from his problems in Boston many years ago, bringing this entire family with him, save for the father he had put in jail for 25 years (Academy Award-winner Jon Voight). His brothers are both wounded beyond repair: Terry (Eddie Marsan of the new Sherlock Holmes films) is a former boxer who developed Parkinson's after being hit too many times, and Bunchy (Dash Mihok, Prime Suspect) was molested by a Catholic priest as a child. Ray's wife Abby (Paula Malcomson, Sons of Anarchy, Caprica) struggles with trusting her husband because of past infidelities, and then there's the new black half-brother Ray never knew he had who appears on the scene as well.

It's an ironic story of how Ray can fix everyone's problems but his own, but this sort of irony has been done to death. Just look at Scandal, which is telling the same kind of story over on ABC, only without the deadly seriousness of Ray Donovan. In that way, Showtime's new series is a bit on the predictable side. We know that Ray's father, Mickey, is going to show up, and we know it's not going to be pretty. We know Ray is going to bulldoze whoever he needs to get the job done. We know he's going to be tempted by pretty blondes. When your show is set up as a contradiction between work and family, being a fixer but unable to fix your family's dysfunction, the plot becomes secondary because we know people aren't perfect and that there's going to be a rocky road... otherwise, there's no show.

Because of this, the characters need to take precedence. They are marginally better-conceived than the plot, but they are all too dark for my taste. There's no ray of light here: everyone is damaged goods. Some have more intriguing pasts (Terry and Bunchy, for example) than others, but none bring any positive energy. Ray is quiet, intimidating, and brooding. We see the anger bubbling beneath his surface constantly, even though it's hidden behind a few layers of Schreiber's scruff. His quietness is a point of interest to everyone in his life, but it's a prerequisite at this point for leading men on television dramas. Ray is the foul-mouthed but often close-lipped anti-hero, similar to The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Dexter and a score of others who have recently graced TV screens. Schreiber is an excellent choice to embody Ray, and he is a commanding and powerful presence. He strikes all the right notes in his character, sizzling in Ray's silence and instilling fear during Ray's outbursts. His (all too brief) tete-a-tete with Jon Voight when father and son meet for the first time in two decades is the pilot's highlight, thanks to controlled but intense performances from both actors. The rest of the cast does just fine playing second fiddle to the two leads. The accents are a source of trouble for quite a few players, including Schreiber at times but most notably Irish-born Malcomson, whose Southie brogue is both obnoxious and exaggerated. Beyond that, the acting is not the problem.

The problem, besides how predictable the plot and characterization is, lies in Ann Biderman's script. Biderman is responsible for one of the greatest cop shows of all time, Southland, as well as for some of the best scripts on NYPD Blue. She excels when it comes to police dramas. Unfortunately, that's not what ray Donovan is. There is still a procedural element here with Ray's clients, but those are the episode's worst moments. Biderman was clearly going for satire in the episode's opening moments, which concern two separate clients whose problems are listed above: dead hooker, taboo gay sex. The presentation of the latter issue is horribly offensive and homophobic, which I get is likely a comment on the homophobia of Hollywood... but at the same time, I don't want to listen to words like "fag" and "cocksucker" and "tranny" over and over. (There's also a very homophobic moment late in the episode when Ray tells his son to stop swimming with Tommy, the gay character, as if his son is going to catch it or be molested. Again, this is probably informed by Ray's brother's childhood molestation, but including predatory gay characters in any sense makes the situation inherently offensive.) The problems and solutions are also not that interesting. They're bogged down by a sense of seriousness, despite how ludicrous the situations are. At least Scandal embraces its melodrama and craziness, but the fixing on Ray Donovan is all angry, serious, and dark. Just like Scandal as well is the repetition of a stupid fixer slogan. Whereas Olivia's catchphrase is something about being "gladiators in suits," Ray's is, "You're in the solution now." It's not as laughable as the former, but it's still pretty silly.

It's also indicative of how seriously Ray Donovan takes itself. The show could be a lot of fun, especially considering how great the cast is and how good creator Ann Biderman typically is. But it's not. The pilot somehow gets too wrapped up in itself and ends up crawling at an interminable pace toward a foregone conclusion. There are some great moments along the way, and some interesting characters who help get us there, but Ray Donovan ultimately failed to leave much of an impression on me.

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