This Christmas there was a dearth of worthwhile television despite the barely coherent PR ramblings of media hacks promoting this or that pay TV channel. So, I turned to one of the few shows that impressed me enough to chance a re-immersion: Ray Donovan.
What makes this show so ‘watchable’? For me the answer was surprisingly hard to nail down. Sure, there’s Liev Schreiber, a much-underrated actor I have been looking out for since RKO 281 (1999) and the Manchurian Candidate re-make in 2004. He’s a major part of the series’ success, and I think his influence can be seen in, among other places, Vince Vaughan’s mid-career switch to tough-guy characters.
But Schreiber didn’t carry the show on his own.
Usually I’m quick to isolate elements in film and television that appeal to me, and that don’t, but with Ray Donovan I had to eliminate the elements of story and character one-by-one to sharpen my focus on why the show worked as well as it did.
Was it the premiss? A South Boston tough-guy-become-Hollywood fixer for the rich and famous. Not above foul play and violence, also 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 makes you wish he’d get his arse kicked to help him grow up;
- 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 in ways that monumentally outstrip the intended gains.
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 sometimes even well-paced. And maybe they also served the purpose of broadening the demographic for the show, which is the only real purpose I can see for those distractions.
But, no, the dysfunctional family wasn’t the premiss that made the show.
Was it the cast of notable supporting actors? They certainly played their part, but again, they would not have been enough to make the show click the way it did for me.
That said, there were some unforgettable performances from people like Elliott Gould, Peter Jacobson, James Woods, Sherilyn Fenn, Ian McShane, Stacy Keach, Ted Levine, Susan Sarandon, Alan Alda, and many others.
Yet, they weren’t the main course. Just side dishes and garnish. Good ones for sure. But not the main meal.
Was it the LA settings? Nope. Not really observed uniquely enough to differentiate them from any other on-screen Los Angeles rendering. In fact, the setting could have been anywhere for all it mattered to the storylines.
Only pedants and narcissists really care whether Hollywood was actually Hollywood, and LA was actually LA.
Nor were the Boston settings particularly evocative, and New York (in seasons six and seven) is similarly just a backdrop rather than a re-visualized experience in its own right.
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.
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 quirks, like the molested altar boy angle on two of the Donovan boys—shades of Spotlight (2015), filmed concurrently with Ray Donovan—and the human disaster area that is the Donovan patriarch, Mickey. But the scripts try too hard to please too many viewer demographics, and descend into cliché too often.
For example, there are Ray’s spoilt children and neurotic wife. Standard clichés, and grating after a while. I am ever-grateful for the fast forward button on the remote.
There are some 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 those.
I was quite taken by the ongoing theme of Ray trying to leave his fixer days behind, for a ‘piece of the action’, meaning becoming a player in his own right rather than just the hired help. That’s the ‘American dream’, continually frustrated and postponed in the serial, the way it is for most people, being that the American dream is one of the most pervasive lies in the modern era.
In contrast, the most disappointing aspect of the writing is that it soon falls into the predictable trope that every venture undertaken by any of the Donovans turns into a series of ‘unpredictable’ but inevitably shambolic, negative consequences that make things worse—a scripted spiral of predictable complications we all know from other television shows since at least The Shield (2002–2008), but likely much earlier. That calculus is, of course, unsustainable because making things worse once means making worse even worse the next time, and so on, making plot-lines avalanche, at times, into 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 continuing ideological suggestion that ‘sins’ and ‘crime’ can never be met with success, which, of course, runs counter to all experience in life. The insightful, competent, taciturn 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, his catastrophic father, and his narcissistic children. It seemed to me that nothing even a deity could have done would have pleased or redeemed his wife.
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.
So, what’s 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 philandering husband, father, brother, and son.
- Avi Rudin, played by Steven Bauer, the former Mossad agent and momma’s boy, is an ironic moralizer even while getting blood on his hands. A conscience for Ray, perhaps saying what Ray cannot or does not. It is probably Bauer’s best rôle since Manny Ribera, opposite Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface (1983). I think it’s a great shame he was written out of the show in season five.
- Lena Burnham, payed by Katherine Moennig, the misanthropic lesbian, whose background remains somewhat mysterious, is a perfect third team member, with no moral qualms about dirty deeds, but a bubbling resentment about 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.
The trio epitomises what Ray Donovan is really all about: fixing problems for the rich and famous in Hollywood, extending to family problems too; and having each other’s backs when things go wrong.
The cast and the arc
The sub-plots with Ray’s dysfunctional brothers are occasionally entertaining, but more often just 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.
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 pace, and derail the plot focus.
The bratty children and hysterical wife seem to be attempts at expanding the potential audience for the serial, 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 plot-lines.
There is a curve to the serial’s focus. Season one rapidly reaches a peak of entertainment and tight scripting that lasts until season three, after which there is a decline, reaching the trough of season five. Watching Ray and Abby negotiate their marriage works in the context of their shared backgrounds, the difficulties Ray has in dealing with psycho clients, his bothers, and his father. Especially in terms of what he does to try and break away from being just a fixer.
I though the minimal rôle for the children should have been maintained; Ray Donovan is not about spoilt teenagers or ‘young adults’. The writing team seem to have forgotten that sometime in season four, inevitably but always breaking pace and resorting to cliché every time the kids have some sort of privileged angst. Boring!
Equally distracting was the increasing focus on Mickey and his bizarre schemes. It was almost as if the spin-off series was being hosted inside the original show. Personally, I like Voight as an actor, but became tired of Mickey and the jarring discontinuity he represented every time he came on-screen.
Deciding to stretch out Abby’s death for twelve episodes in season five is just not entertaining. Nor can pathos be sustained that long. Coupled with the dissolution of Avi in a drug haze (regardless of Steven Bauer’s actual addiction problems), this takes on an exploitative character, cheapening both themes until they just become tedious. Perhaps it also betrays a lack of creativity by the writing team, who seem to rely on an endlessly recycled soap opera formula rather than asking serious questions about the remaining characters. I think that feeling was reinforced by the plainly ridiculous story arcs for Bridget, Conor, and Bunchy.
Season six and seven become entirely new territory. Almost a different television show. No Avi, no LA, eventually no Lena, and even Susan Sarandon can’t lift the aimlessness of Ray’s New York sojourn. The half-hearted attempt to reposition a Hollywood fixer as a New York fixer just seems trite and unconvincing.
Still, the first three seasons of Ray Donovan is the kind of entertainment you buy and take off your shelf to watch again from time to time, maybe generating enough mood to watch the rest of the series as well, finger on the fast-forward button as necessary.