This review contains spoilers.
1.1 The Bag or the Bat & 1.2 A Mouth is a Mouth
With running length of half a day, it can be somewhat unfair to judge a show on a single episode. A series opener has so much introductory work to do that it’s only reasonable to expect that it will take more than a single instalment for a show to hit its stride. This is particularly the case with Ray Donovan, a programme that suffers from as many problems as it dramatises.
The trouble is that the opener is so heavily expositional it feels a little like a ‘Previously on…’ recap that happens to last for an hour. We’re introduced to Ray, his family, his associates and his clients as well as a tour of the seedy pocket of LA in which he plies his trade. We meet characters who presumably know each other very well, several of them actually blood relations, who proceed to unload the details of their darkest problem immediately on seeing one another. Everyone has a key essential problem – from a history of child abuse to a debilitating illness, to hidden homosexuality – and they immediately discuss it, in detail, from its origins to its effect on their lives. Every exchange of dialogue is a massive info dump that stretches credulity beyond patience. It’s insulting because we’re meant to understand that these issues define the character, but we’re not trusted to discover this for ourselves. There are thirteen hours of Ray Donovan in the can. We’ve got time to get to know our way around.
The show concerns the tribulations of the titular Mr Donovan (Liev Schreiber), a multi-purpose ‘fixer’ who works for the law firm Goldman & Drexler. Like a combination of Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolf, and the A-Team, Donovan is the guy you call when you wake up in a strange room with a dead girl whose name you don’t even know, or if you’re caught smoking the white owl with a transvestite and are worried about the scandal affecting your multimillion dollar movie career.
And that’s a rather neat summation of Ray’s client base. The person who has him on their rolodex is typically a movie star or a Don Simpson-esque film producer, the type to keep fat bricks of clean dollar bills in their office safes. Wealthy customers not only help Ray to run a smart Mercedes and maintain an expensive apartment as a spare bachelor pad, but give the show the opportunity to explore the seedy underbelly of LA’s entertainment business, which is possibly the most overexamined underbelly in the world. We’re all familiar with the young starlets who grow too old and are ground into powder, snorted through a $100 bill and hawked out onto a pristine parquet floor. We know all about the movie stars whose private lives are nothing like their public image and who destroy themselves trying to preserve the distinction. We’ve been there too many times before and it’s getting very difficult to care about the palatial sleaze of McMansions in the Hollywood Hills. The show is so keen to say ‘look how scuzzy and broken and, above all, wealthy these people are’ that it’s difficult to develop any sympathy for them.
More affecting is the Donovan family themselves, who promise to be the real engine of the drama, just as soon as they’ve ticked off enough clichés about Irish Americans. Boxing, alcoholism, South Boston, blue collar crime, abusive priests, they’re all there, and all described in detail for those having trouble keeping up at the back.
Naturally, the Donovans are a deeply unhappy family. Terry is a former boxer who is succumbing to Parkinson’s, Bunchy is struggling to come to terms with being abused as a child (by a priest, naturally) and Daryll is dealing with being a hitherto undiscovered half-brother who is, wait for it, black. Meanwhile, failed patriarch, Mickey (Jon Voight) has just been released from a twenty year stretch (we know it’s twenty years, we’re told at least once for every year of his sentence) who makes an ill-advised trip to LA to screw around with Ray’s delicately balanced family arrangements.
Ray himself cruises around LA like he’s in a daze of his own making. He cannot reconcile his working life with his family life, but, familial death and destruction aside, there’s little clue at this stage as to why it’s particularly acute now. And that, to be honest, is a good thing. It’s refreshing, given everything else, not to have Ray’s issues presented to us in six foot high neon lights.
It helps that Schreiber is permitted to shut up, and conveys more with two minutes of silence than other characters do with five minutes of angry dialogue. The same is true of Eddie Marsan, who plays Terry with the excellence that we have come to expect from him. There is clearly more to Terry than his Parkinson’s, and we know that more because of what he doesn’t say than what he does. It’s no coincidence that the two characters in whom we have the greatest interest are the pair who do the least talking.
Their taciturnity is thrown into even sharp relief by the hysteria of the supporting cast. They are defined by their problems or their temperament so much that there isn’t any room for actual character to emerge. Ray’s putative boss, Lee Drexler, does absolutely nothing else than shout at Ray into his phone headset. Nothing. I don’t know if it’s meant to signal that ‘this is an important, urgent job’ or if it’s meant to be some kind of joke, or a combination of the two but it’s weak. His beef seems to be that Ray operates to his own schedule and his own pace. We’re meant to believe that this is exasperating to the point of a coronary episode, but also that Ray is a seasoned professional who always gets the job done. The result is that Drexler is presented as wrong for being so aggressively wound up that he’s nothing more than comic relief. And he isn’t funny.
There is little confidence shown in the plot too. Ray Donovan telegraphs its intentions so heavily that they may as well have been advertised during the Superbowl. Mickey asks his formerly estranged grandson, whom he cannot have previously known, ‘are you a fag?’ The question is made apropos of absolutely nothing, but just guess what starts to emerge minutes later. Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a plot strand. Characters are given arbitrary motivations that do nothing other than project the fact that This Is Important.
Nonetheless, Ray Donovan is worth persevering with. Structurally, it’s very good. The two sides to Ray’s life, his private and professional, intersect in clever ways, while his preferred method of fix problems is to use one to solve the other and, in doing so, tie them both off. Things do start to motor by the end of the second episode, and there are signs that the show will hit a nice groove. Underneath everything there’s a good show here, a solid, if not 100% original premise and a tiny handful of excellent performances that will sustain it, as long as the scripts loosen up and give the characters room to breathe and the audience time to get to know them. At this early stage though, it could do with the services of a discreet fixer.
Ray Donovan is currently airing on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays at 10pm.
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