Ray Donovan is being sold as a new Showtime series, but right now it feels like it’s actually two shows.
The first show — about a family of tough South Boston Irish-Americans who relocate to Los Angeles, and start a boxing gym and a combination private eye/protection service that caters to celebrities — is pretty good, if you’re not burned out on the “Tough White Dude Can’t Control His Inner Demons but Has a Good Heart” genre.
The other show — a send-up of America’s one-percenters, and of the petty hustlers and lost souls that latch onto them like lampreys onto sharks — is much better. In fact, it’s close to great. Like The Larry Sanders Show, The Comeback, The Limey, Modern Romance, Get Shorty, David Mamet’s Wag the Dog and State and Main, and other great showbiz satires, this second program picks its targets and takes them down with a sniper’s precision. It’s really funny, not just because the dialogue is sharp, but because the actors deliver the lines as if their characters haven’t a clue how silly or hypocritical they sound.
In Ray Donovan’s first episode (airing on Sunday at 10 p.m. EST) a married sleazebag producer hires the title character (Liev Schreiber) to tail his young mistress and figure out whom she’s sleeping with, but warns him, “I don’t want her to know I’m having her followed, because she has trust issues.” In the second, a hunky young movie star tells his AA group meeting that he learned a lot from reading “The Tibetan Book of the Undead,” then phones Ray to tell him about the latest celebrity scandal he’s about to be plunged into and says, “I’m learning a lot about my addictions right now.”
Ray Donovan — the latest production by writer-producer-showrunner Ann Biderman, of the late, lamented Southland — tries to combine its two modes, tough-guy family soap and social satire, by viewing Hollywood through the Donovans’ working-class eyes. Schreiber’s title character is a smart bruiser who’s good at his job, but prone to last-minute inspirations that drive his chirpy, foulmouthed business partner Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson) up the wall. He seems to be tiring of his marriage to Abby (Paula Malcomson), who’s on his back about moving them to a ritzier neighborhood. (Calabasas, Lee jokes, is a place where only Sinbad or Howie Mandel would live.) Ray seems slightly overwhelmed by having to be the leader of their family, and make sure that his two brothers, a boxing coach and gym manager named Terry (Eddie Marsan) and a recovering alcoholic named Bunchy (Dash Mihok), make good choices and are taken care of. Then he finds out that their dad Mickey (Jon Voight) got released from prison five years early and is on his way to L.A. to get to know his grandkids, and suddenly he’s Atlas with a nicer haircut.
The show is more successful when the Donovans are interacting with rich or otherwise spoiled people than when they’re dealing with their own problems, because the problems, however sympathetically written and acted, are a potluck stew of elements you’ve seen in other stories about South Boston Irish-Americans: crime and booze and drugs, resentment of the swells, childhood domestic and sexual abuse. (It seems at least two of the Donovans got molested by priests. Bunchy just received a payout from suing the church, and Ray won’t let strangers touch him.)
The show treats the Southies’ struggle to assimilate in La-La Land as a stand-in for every adoptive Los Angeleno’s attempts remake themselves — indeed, for the American re-invention myth as a whole. The scenes in which the hero, his lovable meathead brothers, and their Whitey Bulger-styled dad get in other guys’ faces are effective enough, especially if Schreiber is the one doing the intimidating. With bullet head, mongoose stare, and railroad-spike physique sheathed in all-black, Schreiber’s the most dapper yet volatile leading man on TV after Timothy Olyphant on Justified.
Ray Donovan tonally echoes FX’s modern western — and Elmore Leonard generally — when it’s not reminding you of a more brutal modern version of The Rockford Files.
Come to think of it, Ray’s colleagues are Rockford-esque, especially Steven Bauer as the unflappable badass Avi, Sancho Panza to Ray’s Don Quixote, and Elliott Gould as Ray’s mentor Ezra Goodman, a guy who quotes the Torah every chance he gets, yet thinks nothing of inviting his mistress to his late wife’s memorial service. He’s a sexual hypocrite, of course, like so many premium cable heroes, but the producer’s mistress spins than into sympathy, too, by reading Ray’s palm and telling him he’s the sort of guy who falls in love easily. Ray Donovan likes its characters a lot, but not so much that it makes you complicit in their sins. It’s warm but not sticky. More than one character repeats a variation on, “I’m not a bad person,” and you can tell they really need to believe it.
When Schreiber is present for supporting players’ moments of self-delusion, the scenes are funnier still. He lets you see how hopeless Ray thinks these characters are while comporting his face and body in such a way that the person to whom he’s listening assumes Ray is being nonjudgmental, even supportive. Ray’s got a temper, which he does a decent job of controlling considering the line of work he’s in, but you can tell he constantly has to remind himself that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. You know Ray disapproves of you if he lets one of your statements hang in the air without comment, or walks out of the room without another word.
The fish-out-of-water stuff is so much livelier than the fish-in-water stuff that it partly neutralizes some pretty dumb plotting in the pilot. (Think about what happens in the first fifteen minutes, and ask yourself if Ray’s big inspiration is as clever as he seems to think it is. Hint: It’s not.) The hero’s white-knight-in-black routine confuses or irritates the folks whose messes he cleans up. That’s to the show’s benefit. It’s fun to watch the entitled knobs on Ray’s client list condescend to him, then become envious when they realize that he’s got standards, and that once he draws a line, he won’t cross it.
“He’s hot, isn’t he?” the producer asks his assistant after Ray leaves his office.
“Yes,” the assistant replies.
“Find out who his trainer is,” the producer says.