I don't think I like "Ray Donovan," but I keep watching it, so it must be doing something right.
The new Showtime drama, debuting Sunday after "Dexter," follows a Hollywood fixer who helps clients out of jams. Wake up with a dead girl? Call Ray. Pick up a transsexual hooker? Call Ray. Have a delicate situation demanding subtlety and discretion? Call Saul from "Breaking Bad." Ray's job is breaking arms.
I expected to love "Ray Donovan" completely. So maybe my expectations were too high. Creator Ann Biderman, who is also responsible for the excellent "Southland," has my deep respect. Liev Schreiber, who plays Ray, is one of my favorite actors. His 2006 Central Park performance in "Macbeth" may be the best acting I've ever seen by anyone. I've lived in Boston, Ray's hometown, and Los Angeles, his adopted one. Both teem with comic and dramatic potential.
So what's wrong? Aside from Ray Donovan himself, "Ray Donovan" is cluttered with broad characters it's hard to feel invested in.
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He comes from a family of Irish stereotypes. It includes two brothers who seem like Christian Bale's "Fighter" character split in two. One is a responsible ex-boxer dealing with Parkinson's, and the other an alcoholic who drinks to cope with being molested by a Catholic priest. Their dad, Mickey (Jon Voight) is a Whitey Bulger-esque charmer who, Ray learns in the premiere, has fathered a half-black half-brother to the boys. Ray's poor wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson) is one of those blue-collar salt-of-the-earth types you see a lot in TV and movies, the kind who pronounces the word whore "hoo-ah." She has plenty of reason to use the word, given that irrepressible husband of hers.
Any of the characters, except for Voight's tiresome ex-con con man, would be fine on their own, and all of the actors manage to breathe empathy into their stock characters. But the barrage of cartoon-like people in the supporting cast gets annoying fast. Elliot Gould, as Ray's mentor, is given the silly tic of constantly lapsing into Yiddish.
Some of the black and Jewish characters feel like stereoptypes dreamed up by the Irish stereotypes. The most egregious ones come in the third episode, when we meet an African-American rapper trying to adopt a boy he calls "the black Justin Bieber" who has his eye on Ray's young daughter. His music, by the way, is much cornier than that of any recent rapper, or Justin Bieber. It made me worry that the writer's room may just be out of touch.
I'm not calling the show racist. The problem with the characters isn't that they're offensive. It's that they're offensively obvious. I think "Ray Donovan" is trying a little too hard to be gritty and gutsy and real, like "Southland" felt. But "Ray Donovan" seems to think that showing people fighting, cursing and getting it is enough to make them seem authentic. It isn't. They also need to seem believable when they're not in a boxing gym or bedroom.
Maybe it will get better as the show goes on. I hope so. Because I still plan to keep watching. Why have I made it through three critics' screeners so far? I hate to say it, but I think it's the violence.
I'm fascinated by how quicky Ray resorts to it. His job is ostensibly to find brilliant solutions to his clients' problems, but those tend toward the incredible. (The show would have us believe that it's far better, PR-wise, to re-stage a homicide scene and be linked to a young woman's death than it is to pick up a transsexual hooker. Is it? Eddie Murphy seems to have bounced back, and Phil Spector hasn't.)
Ray resorts very quickly to threatening to kick asses, or just to kicking asses. What's interesting is that it seems to work. There are no consequences -- not from the people he batters, and not from the cops they're afraid of calling -- so we have to assume that the only damage Ray suffers is inside.
He's like an addict who knows he has a problem, but doesn't think he has time to deal with it right now. And he doesn't. His dad is out of jail and trying to get back into his life, his brothers have different health problems, the starlet he's supposed to save from a stalker ends up stalking him. So are a cadre of Hollywood cartoons. The show's funniest line comes from one of them, a sleazy producer, in the second episode.
"He's hot, isn't he?" he says of Ray. "Find out who his trainer is."
But Ray doesn't have one. And lucky for us, he doesn't seem to have a shrink, either. That's why I'm staying with the show. I'm hoping this will become a story about a man, corroding from the inside, whose rough-and-tumble upbringing gives makes him even less enlightened than Tony Soprano was when it comes to getting some help.
Ray has a lot to work out, and for a job this big, just calling a fixer isn't enough: This looks like a job for Liev Schreiber.
"Ray Donovan" premieres Sunday at 10/9 c on Showtime.
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