Ray Donovan (2013-2017)

Christmas excesses usually require some recuperation, and binge-watching back-to-back television episodes is a reliable pastime for the waking hours, while digesting too much food and sweating out too much booze in the heat of the season.

This Christmas there was a dearth of worthwhile television despite the barely coherent PR ramblings of journalists in the employ of media conglomerates, each with a stake in subscription TV. So I turned to one of the few shows still running that impressed me enough to chance a re-watching of prior seasons: the first five seasons of Ray Donovan, available on DVD and Blu-Ray; the sixth season wasn’t part of my little binge. It is still unwinding on television. And earlier in the month there was talk that the show had been renewed for a seventh season.

What makes this show so watchable? For me the answer was surprisingly hard to nail down in explicable terms. I had to eliminate elements one by one. A difficult exercise while steaming vodka fumes from my pores and struggling to digest far too much seafood.

Premiss

Was it the premiss?  A South Boston tough guy become Hollywood fixer for the rich and famous.  Not above foul play and violence, and having to deal with a dysfunctional, narcissistic, sometimes ridiculously self-destructive family:

  • The often hysterical, neurotic wife Abby (Paula Malcomson);
  • The loathsomely narcissistic daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) with a princess complex straight out of a Disney feature;
  • The feckless, arrogant son, Conor (Devon Bagby) who you just hope gets his arse kicked;
  • The older brother, Terry (Eddie Marsan), suffering from Alzheimer’s and a massive chip on his shoulder;
  • The simpleton, perpetual fuck-up younger brother Brendan ‘Bunchy’ (Dash Mihok);
  • The constantly wrong-footed black half-brother Daryll (Pooch Hall) misled repeatedly by his father, Mickey; and
  • The unrepentant walking disaster area, Mickey (Jon Voight), father to all the Donovan boys, recently released from gaol after serving a 20 year sentence, and constantly screwing up small-time gangster schemes.

I don’t think this hybrid action/drama/soap opera premiss, with its many distracting twists and turns, really made the show as compelling as it turned out to be. Maybe parts of those twists and turns were amusing, and even well-paced. But no, it wasn’t the premiss that made the show.

Supporting cast

Was it the stellar cast of supporting actors, ranging from Elliott Gould to Susan Sarandon?  They certainly played their part, but again, they would not have been enough to make the show click the way it did for me.  They weren’t the main course.  Just side dishes and garnish. Good ones for sure. But not the centrepiece.

The Donovans (l-r) Daryll, Mickey, Abby, Ray, Terry, and Bunchy.

Locations

Was it the LA settings?  Nope.  Not really observed uniquely enough to differentiate them from any other show. In fact, the setting could have been anywhere for all it mattered to the show. Only Americans would really care whether Hollywood was actually Hollywood, and LA was actually LA. 

Nor were the Boston settings particularly evocative, and New York (season six) is similarly just a backdrop rather than a re-visualised experience.

No doubt production values were high, but most of the real action takes place indoors or in non-descript locations. It is the action and dialogue that counts.

Scripting

The writing maybe?  Ann Biderman, the show’s creator and leading executive producer, plus a dozen others did deliver some solid scripts, with occasionally unique quirk, like the molested altar boy angle on two of the Donovan boys, and the continuous fuck-up that is the Donovan patriarch, Mickey.  But the scripts try too hard to please too many viewer demographics, and descend into cliché too often after season one.

For example, there are Ray’s children and wife.  Standard clichés, and grating after a while.  I am ever gratfeul for fast forward on the remote.

Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan.

To be fair, there are also savage, amusing satires of Hollywood producers and other LA hangers on.  But the comedic elements these provide seem mostly misplaced when set against the dark side of greed, power-plays, and the violence done to satisfy them.

And, most disappointing of all, the scripts soon fall into the predictable trope that every venture undertaken by any of the Donovans turns into a series of ‘unpredictable’ but negative consequences that make things worse–a scripted spiral of predictable complications we all know from other television shows since at least The Shield, but likely much earlier.  That calculus is, of course, unsustainable because worse than worse soon becomes ridiculous overstatement. There is a limit to the rinse and repeat plausibility. At some stage the suspension of disbelief is itself suspended.

This aspect of formulaic Hollywood scripting is also fatuous for its suggestion that ‘sins’ can never be met with success, which of course runs counter to all experience in life.  Ray should have succeeded at least one time out of three with his less than honest schemes, allowing him to be more effective in rescuing his bumbling brothers and his disastrous father.

So, while the scripting might contribute to the overall ‘watchability’ of Ray Donovan, it is not the principal reason, and might fail quite badly on its own if it weren’t for some other element.

The trio

What was left?  At long last I hit on the element that had me glued to the screen for several days: it was the trio of characters Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) his leg breaker Avi Rudin (Steven Bauer), and his operative Lena Barnum (Katherine Moennig).  Their separate on-screen presences and combined chemistry is not equalled by any of the other actors, no matter how famous or well played.

  • Ray, emotionally blunted by his experience of being molested as a Catholic altar boy, and his sister’s suicide, but toughened by growing up as a South Boston Irish street thug, is perfect in his rôle as fixer. Much better than he is as a husband, father, brother, and son.
  • Avi, the former Mossad agent and momma’s boy, is an ironic moraliser even while getting blood on his hands. A conscience for Ray, perhaps saying what Ray doesn’t.  It is probably Bauer’s best rôle since Manny Ribera, opposite Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface.  I think it’s a great shame he was written out of the show in season five.
  • The misanthropic lesbian Lena, whose background remains a mystery, is a perfect third team member, with no moral qualms about dirty deeds, but a bubbling resentment of being taken for granted too often by the gruff, dictatorial Ray, who doesn’t really explain himself or his purposes when making demands of his team.

So, the show succeeds, in my eyes, because when this trio is on-screen the action is tight and fast-paced, with precise set-ups, and devoid of the immature, silly antics so often mistaken by American writers and audiences for character depth.

Katherine Moennig as Lena Barnum and Steven Bauer as Avi Rudin.

The trio epitomises what Ray Donovan is really all about: fixing problems for the rich and famous in Hollywood; and having each other’s backs when things go wrong.

The sub-plots with his fuck-up brothers are occasionally entertaining, but more often annoying.  Particularly the ones with Bunchy, which just become painful to stomach for the stupidity of the character.  Eddie Marsan as Terry Donovan is at times quite brilliant, but he seems out of place in the show and even in the fictional Donovan family.

Jon Voight has been lauded for his performance as the perpetually bungling petty crim, Mickey Donovan, and he can be quite entertaining, but his character’s sub-plots frequently slow down the show, and derail its focus.

The bratty children and hysterical wife seem to be attempts at expanding the potential audience, but their characters start to grate even in season one for their shallowness and hysterical overstatement.  I found myself thinking at times that it would be great if they were dispatched back to Boston, or some other place, with only occasional appearances, so they didn’t keep interrupting the more solidly entertaining plotlines.

There is a curve to the show’s focus.  Season one is a peak, season three heads into the trough of season four, and the beginning of season five, with its endless flashbacks to explain the death of Abby and the dissolution of the Ray Donovan character.  Season six is an unknown quantity, but seems to be end of the line: no wife, no Avi, no LA, and even Susan Sarandon can’t lift the aimlessness of Ray’s New York sojourn.  Still, it isn’t done yet.

As with all television that I judge to be memorable, Ray Donovan is the kind of show you buy and take off your shelf to watch again from time to time.

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