‘Donovan,’ characters without a plot
New Showtime series is about tough guys doing bad things
June 25, 2013
In a drama with a title character, that character needs to be watchable. But in this era of serialized TV storytelling, that’s not enough. The plot has to kick in eventually.
The first two or so episodes of Showtime’s new drama “Ray Donovan” succeed in establishing the title character as a tough, manly, cool guy. But as the series goes on, the energy of the main plotline dissipates. Viewers will enjoy getting to know Ray, but they may not be interested in a long relationship.
Premiering this Sunday, June 30, at 10 p.m., the series stars Liev Schreiber as a “fixer” who works for a Los Angeles law firm headed by Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) and Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson). He’s a more physical version of the New York-based fixer played by George Clooney in “Michael Clayton.”
Ray works with a tough Israeli named Avi (Steven Bauer), who handles some of the more violent assignments, and an American named Lena (Katherine Moennig), who spends a lot of time watching or listening to surveillance tapes of people having sex.
In the first episode, Ray receives a call from a wealthy athlete, Deonte Frasier (Mo McRae), who has woken up with an unresponsive woman bleeding profusely from the nose. Trying to calm Deonte down, Ray says, “You think you’re the first person I’ve dealt with who woke up in bed with a dead body?”
Then another client of the firm, the movie star Tommy Wheeler (Austin Nichols), calls because he thinks he might have been spotted picking up a transvestite. Ray’s solution to both problems has a farcical aspect, but it’s played straight.
Ray is also doing surveillance on a pop star named Ashley (Ambyr Childers), the mistress of a studio head, Stu Feldman (Josh Pais). Ashley, who was a client of Ray’s when she was 16, finds him irresistible.
Ray’s father, Mickey (Jon Voight), fresh from finishing a 20-year sentence in a Massachusetts prison, goes to a Catholic church in Boston and shoots a priest in the head. He’s soon flying out to L.A. to rejoin his family.
Ray’s brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) is a former boxer suffering from Parkinson’s disease who runs a boxing gym. His brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) is an alcoholic who never recovered from being sexually abused as a child by a priest.
Ray has two teenage children with his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), who shares his working-class South Boston origins but wants to get their kids into a fancy private school.
When Mickey shows up in L.A., Ray’s first surprise is that he has an African-American half-brother, Daryll (Pooch Hall), Mickey’s son with his girlfriend Claudette (Sheryl Lee Ralph). For an unspecified but unrelated reason, Ray wants Mickey to stay away from his family.
Complicating things further, Ezra seems to be having a crisis of conscience following the death of his wife. He tells Ray, “I’ve asked you to fix things that should never have been fixed.” One of those things evidently involved Mickey.
Ray is a man of few words and fewer facial expressions. Often other characters seem to be setting Ray up to deliver a scene-ending zinger; instead, we get a close-up of his semipermanent scowl. On those rare occasions when his anger or his amusement shows, they’re doubly powerful.
Schreiber has enough magnetism to keep us involved by simply making us wonder what Ray is going to do next. A violent confrontation with Mickey seems inevitable.
But by the end of the four episodes that were made available for review, that confrontation seems to be receding and the creators seem to be trying to stall for time. In the fourth episode, Mickey takes Terry and Daryll on an inconclusive visit to Claudette’s home in Palm Springs, and Terry goes on a date with his sympathetic nurse, Frances (Brooke Smith).
Mickey becomes involved with Van Miller (Frank Whaley), who may be the most unlikely FBI agent in the history of television.
Although Mickey is supposed to be the main antagonist, his story lines and Voight’s performance become increasingly comical. A hard guy like Ray needs something equally hard to bump up against.
“Ray Donovan” isn’t the first series to set up a conflict and then find itself having to fill time in order to delay the resolution. Viewers will enjoy the first hour or two and can decide for themselves if Ray can carry them for the long haul.
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