The late David Mills wrote for some of the best dramas of the last 20 years, including “The Wire,” “Treme,” “NYPD Blue,” “Homicide” and “ER.” But before that he was a journalist and a critic, and he always had a tendency to look at his new industry from the viewpoint of his old one, and to have an unyielding standard for shows that aspired to play in the same ballpark as the ones he’d been lucky enough to work for.
When I was a younger critic, I would often grow enamored of some new show because of its creative pedigree, or an impressive cast, until Mills would cut through all of that and ask me, “Why does this show exist? What does it have to say about its premise that’s interesting and distinctive? Why am I watching for anything besides the names and a few good performances?”
I have a feeling Mills would not think too kindly of “Ray Donovan,” the new Showtime drama that’s debuting Sunday night at 10.
On the surface, it has all the traits that seem to define quality drama in the 21st century. Creator Ann Biderman was also the mind behind “Southland,” and has an Emmy on her shelf for writing an “NYPD Blue” script – winning in a year when the entire competition came from “NYPD Blue” co-workers like David Milch and Steven Bochco. Its cast includes Liev Schreiber doing his first ongoing TV work (unless you count his side gig narrating HBO Sports documentaries), Oscar winner Jon Voight, “Deadwood” alum Paula Malcomson, Elliott Gould, and reliable character actor types like Steven Bauer and Katherine Moennig. It follows “The Sopranos” formula of presenting a flawed anti-hero – in this case, Schreiber as a Boston thug turned Hollywood fixer who kicks butt, takes names and looks damn good doing it in very expensive suits – torn between work and family, and between the angels and demons that live inside him. Schreiber’s a commanding physical presence, director Allen Coulter (a “Sopranos” veteran) effectively shoots the sun-dappled streets and hills of Los Angeles like he’s making a 21st century film noir(*), and several of the supporting characters (notably Ray’s damaged brothers, played by Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok) are fascinating.
(*) Long ago, back when he was briefly one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Gould played Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s strange, hypnotic adaptation of “The Long Goodbye,” whose plot spins out of Marlowe’s cat going missing. At one point in “Ray Donovan,” Gould’s Ezra explains some strange behavior by saying he was looking for his cat, and all it made me feel was sadness that he’s become such an overactor in his later years, and here is mostly reduced to shouting in Yiddish and making cryptic, ominous pronouncements.
But as a whole, “Ray Donovan” feels empty, like an attempt to reverse-engineer a new classic without actually having a story worth telling.
The series is what Fienberg likes to call a Vocational Irony Narrative. If you’re a movie star, a film executive or otherwise rich in LA, and you have a problem, Ray Donovan can help you. Woke up in bed next to a naked corpse? Got caught having sex with a transvestite right before your big action movie is being released? Want to buy the parental rights for your teen protege away from his crackhead mom? Ray’s your man, and will calmly tell you his catchphrase: “You’re in the solution now.” But ask Ray to fix any of the problems in his own life – a strained marriage to childhood sweetheart Abby (Malcomson), his ex-fighter brother Terry (Marsan) struggling with Parkinson’s, his kid brother Bunchy (Mihok) an emotional wreck decades after he was molested by a priest, his cruel father Mickey (Voight) getting out of prison after Ray and his partners put him there 20 years ago – and solutions are very hard to come by.
There are several fundamental problems with the series. First, and most obviously, there are the accents. The Donovans are all transplants from South Boston, and it sounds like each actor went to a different dialect coach, creating the illusion that they’re all starring in a small Midwestern community production of “Good Will Hunting.” Schreiber comes across best of anyone, in part because Ray doesn’t talk much, but also because he gets to blend his two default screen personas: the intellectual and the brute. But as he plays scenes opposite co-stars doing varying levels of Southie Theater, it builds a level of artifice so that you never really see him as Ray Donovan, but as Liev Schreiber putting on a nice suit and a few layers of facial scruff.
Second, almost none of the scenes involving either Ray’s fixer job (with Bauer as additional muscle and Moennig as the techie) work, nor does the larger look at Hollywood culture. Biderman’s aiming for satire, particularly in our glimpses of a cruel and neurotic studio executive (Josh Pais) and the closeted action star (Austin Nichols), but it all seems as phony (and funny) as “Entourage,” or Showtime’s own “Episodes” and “Californication.” There’s a lot of yelling (much of it by Peter Jacobson as one of the two lawyers who technically employs Ray), drugs and cynicism, with almost all of it falling flat. Ray’s job is meant to provide a weekly story engine in the same way that Tony Soprano had different beefs to settle each episode (or the same way Dexter Morgan has to kill a series of smaller villains to get to that season’s big bad), but if none of those scenes and characters function on their own, then it comes across as the slavish formula it actually is.
Third, the antagonism between Ray and his father is largely a dud in the early going. (I’ve seen the first five episodes.) Mickey is actually the first character we meet, and he’s presented in the pilot episode as a shark (Voight’s eyes even turn to narrow slits most of the time) who will not stop moving until he’s destroyed everything his backstabbing son cares about. But that sort of arc’s unsustainable over a long period – even if Biderman sees Mickey as a one-season villain, to be sidelined next year in favor of whatever version of Richie Aprile she has in mind – and soon Mickey settles into being more of a colorful nuisance (and an excuse for Voight to go full ham as Mickey gleefully hires prostitutes, dances to soul music and harasses library patrons with his love of twerk videos) – than a genuine threat. There may be a long game being played here by both Mickey and his writers, but the initial moves are clumsy and lackadaisical.
The meatiest parts of the show exist almost entirely separate from the plot. I think I would watch an entire series that revolved around Terry and Bunchy, and the way the two brothers struggle with physical and emotional wounds left by the worlds they grew up in. I can’t imagine a circumstance under which Showtime would greenlight that version of the show, but Marsan and Mihok are both superb, and there’s a specificity to the scenes involving each of them that’s largely absent elsewhere. When Bunchy is sitting a support group for abuse survivors, or acting out the childhood he never quite escaped, or when Terry is working up the nerve to ask out the private nurse who helps him manage his symptoms, “Ray Donovan” doesn’t feel like six other series that were put into a blender, but like its own thing.
Watching these first episodes, I couldn’t help thinking of another drama about a powerful fixer, but of a type that Showtime likely isn’t in a rush to copy. ABC’s “Scandal” often gets written off as a Guilty Pleasure because it’s unapologetic in its scale (the president murdering a Supreme Court justice) and sense of melodrama, and because it doesn’t seem eager to cloak itself in the trappings of Serious Television in the way that “Ray Donovan” so relentlessly does. “Scandal” is a show that knows what it is and what it does well, and is awfully entertaining as a result. “Ray Donovan” seems to define itself in comparison to other shows without carving out its own identity, and is incredibly grim, to boot, outside of the ungainly lampooning of the rich and famous of LA.
Of course, “Scandal” was largely forgettable in its first season, and Biderman’s own “Southland” really didn’t find itself until year three, when it moved from NBC to TNT and was forced by budget cuts to stop doing many things decently and just do a handful of things very well. There’s enough strong raw material on hand that “Ray Donovan” could eventually be built into something great. Right now, though, it’s raw material in search of a series.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: Showtime made the first episode available online in advance of the premiere. For those of you who’ve already watched it, please try to be vague about plot details in the comments. I’ll have a separate post going up Sunday night after the premiere so everyone who’s watched can discuss it without having been spoiled too much. Thanks.