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By now it’s old news that major film actors are flocking to television. The roles are often better. The writing is definitely better. Instead of telling a truncated story in roughly two hours, they get to inhabit a character in a multi-episode, living, breathing, ongoing narrative.
What’s not to like?
Despite knowing all of that, it’s still a thrill watching Showtime’s Ray Donovan (premiering June 30 at 10 p.m.) and basking in Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight going toe-to-toe. This was casting gold. Much has been written about how high-quality cable series resuscitated the careers of actresses of a certain age who were getting terrible roles on the big screen. But witness Voight here and you have to think that maybe a two-hour film devoting 20 or so minutes to such a heavyweight, no matter the material, is a disservice to the talent. Seriously, Voight is as riveting, menacing, nuanced and electric in Ray Donovan as in any role he’s had in years.
There is so much to love about Ray Donovan, but one of the best elements is that 62-year-old executive producer, creator and writer Ann Biderman (Southland, Public Enemies, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Primal Fear) has absolutely obliterated the ridiculous industry standard that you have to be some young talented thing to make an impact. She’s created the most testosterone-fueled, rough and intelligent drama in ages, and it’s a credit to Showtime’s honcho David Nevins (and other executive producers Mark Gordon and Bryan Zuriff) that he bought into her vision and believed in her ability.
The series centers on Donovan (Schreiber, who is magnetic in every scene), as a Hollywood “fixer.” A famous basketball player ends up in bed with a dead woman? Ray’s got it. Your $200 million action film is about to come out and your star is caught on video blowing a tranny? Not a problem for Ray. He’s the epitome of the Triple C — cool, calm, collected — as he quashes all kinds of TMZ-styled headlines just waiting to happen.
But as good as Ray is at his job, it’s taking a toll on his family. His wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson) wants to be part of the good life in Los Angeles that Ray dabbles in for work, but hasn’t quite figured out that while her husband is powerful, he’s still working for others. Her maddening push to achieve more and more has strained their relationship — as has Ray’s infidelity — and their two children are caught in the middle.
Elsewhere it seems like Ray’s success and ability to control things in life is a valued asset for his two brothers, Terry (Eddie Marsan) a former boxer now dealing with Parkinson’s disease as he runs a gym in downtown Los Angeles; and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), who was molested by a priest as a young boy and has led a life of addiction and depression ever since.
The Donovans are South Boston through and through (as is Abby), shipped to Los Angeles by Ray to get away from their scheming, criminal father Mickey (Voight), who has spent the last 20 years in prison. And here’s the catch: He was supposed to serve 25. Now Mickey is out and heading to California in what can only be a nightmare scenario for Ray, who has fought his whole life to be separate from his dangerous, manipulative father.
There are lots of surprises in California that Mickey brings to light. First and foremost is that Ray, Terry and Bunchy have a black half-brother named Daryll (Pooch Hall), who is training at the gym. That means when Mickey shows up, his charm and dangerous persuasion is working wonders on at least three of his boys, which puts it at 4-to-1 against Ray.
The beauty of Ray Donovan is that it combines so many superb angles. Ray was the lone son that Mickey couldn’t manipulate and he’s gone to the opposite coast to make his escape and his way. But the sins of the father are close at hand and family is family, even if you hate them. The series skewers the vanity of Los Angeles and allows Ray to exist in this world where money can fix any indiscretion. It’s also the perfect city for exhibiting how a little money can create a lust for even more money — hence Abby’s social climbing — and works as a fine metaphor for the tarnished American dream.
Particularly effective is Biderman’s sense of incorporating something distinctly different — life in South Boston, Catholicism, church abuse, old-school family roots versus the fresh-start reincarnation promise of California. It’s a culture clash that is not even close to being the top element in Ray Donovan but provides a unique extra layer.
Having seen the first four episodes, another aspect that works is Biderman’s hiding of deeper secrets. There’s a hint that Ray was instrumental in putting his father in jail. And there’s another hint Mickey has an explosive secret that can bring down a lot of people, including Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould), a confidant, collaborator and client of Ray’s who is slowly losing his sanity.
On a separate level, Ray’s day-to-day business of fixing the major screw-ups of the rich and famous in Los Angeles — aided by Avi (Steven Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moennig), a no-bullshit lesbian whose story (like Avi’s) — is barely unraveling in the first four episodes. But these are good signs. Biderman has a lot of plot to manipulate and a lot of story to tell.
Biderman must be gleeful at getting to pull the strings on such an intricate story, with a fine ensemble cast. It’s an embarrassment of acting riches for Ray Donovan. So much so that any scene where Schreiber or Voight looks up to witness the other at a distance just crackles with anticipation — what hell is about to be unleashed in the ensuing moments?
Early sneaks of Ray Donovan hinted that Showtime might have a real gem on its hands, but four episodes provides an absolute exclamation point.
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