The first episode of Showtime’s bracing new Sunday night drama, “Ray Donovan,” is a remarkable achievement in piloting — tight and tough and almost flawlessly conceived and performed. Showtime’s proud enough already of “Ray Donovan” that it put the episode online for all to see several days ago as an enticement to those who still don’t subscribe to the channel. If nothing else, the show is another steady shot across HBO’s bow.
Then come the next few episodes. It’s usually not a good sign when you start admiring the ambition and attempted scope of a series like “Ray Donovan” from a conscious state of remove. This is one of those shows where you wind up watching yourself try to watch it. If a show is very good, it never allows you to lapse into a constant, scene-by-scene clinical assessment of its strengths and weaknesses as it is happening in front of you. It’s not as if “Ray Donovan’s” creator, Ann Biderman (“Southland”), is waiting for your production notes. To her lasting credit, the show is fast and sure out of the gate.
Allowing for the sprawl and setup necessary to the premium cable drama genre (and the constant violence), the best thing “Ray Donovan” has going for it is its star and its essential premise: Liev Schreiber plays the title role with fierce but measured resolve, making sure that you cannot help but be drawn in by the basic plot.
Ray is a professional fixer who came from South Boston to a Hollywood full of problems that all need to disappear. He’s a practitioner of the dark arts of crisis management, handling what PR consultants and rabid lawyers cannot. When a pro athlete wakes up next to a dead naked woman in a hotel, it’s up to Ray and his team to make it all go away before TMZ finds out. Same goes for trailing a studio executive’s mistress to see if she’s sleeping around; same goes for covering up a big-screen action hero’s dalliances with transsexual prostitutes. What Ray can’t solve with hidden microphones or a thorough vacuuming or a manila envelope full of cash, he can usually solve with a baseball bat, which, to his regret, is a bit crude.
“Ray Donovan” is a story about a man trying to have it several different ways at once. He’s got a house in the Valley and a wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), gently but firmly nagging him for an upgrade — a house in Beverly Hills, private schools for their teenage daughter and son (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby). He’s also supporting his brothers — Terry (Eddie Marsan), a former boxer now coping with Parkinson’s; and Bunchy (Dash Mihok), who was sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy and now struggles to stay sober.
Though I do not begrudge “Ray Donovan” its sense of momentum or tension, I was immediately struck by a desire to simply see more of Ray doing his job for a few episodes rather than seeing him deal with his brothers’ various problems. “Ray Donovan” offers us the same tantalizing Hollywood milieu of “Entourage,” minus the sunny bromanticism, a setting which is in and of itself a cliche.
But if forced to choose between a drama about cleaning up Lohan-grade messes in Malibu or yet another drama about Southie grit and a boxing gym (also cliche), I’d easily take the show about the West Coast problems. One of the more interesting ideas in “Ray Donovan” is to play up the dichotomy between the world the Donovan brothers came from and the world they live in now. They all live in L.A., where Ray has adapted splendidly and even stylishly, but the brothers remain marginalized and Boston strong, as if riding on the imaginary Affleck-Wahlberg float in a St. Paddy’s Day parade.
Soon enough, the antagonist arrives: Ray’s criminal father, Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight), is paroled from a Massachusetts prison after a long — but apparently not long enough — sentence.
After a quick trip to murder the priest who abused Bunchy, Mickey is on a flight to LAX. Ray’s a little too cool to express his dread and anxiety over this, but it’s a smothering effect all the same — for him and, sadly, for the show.
Like Robert De Niro in the “Cape Fear” remake, Voight is only too happy to immerse himself in a role spun from a slick and purposeful menace, landing somewhere between scene-stealer and scenery-chewer. It’s difficult to assess Voight’s over-the-top performance in relation to Schreiber’s simmeringly controlled bursts, mostly because Mickey is such a two-dimensional character from the outset, distracting us from the careful effort Biderman and company have put into portraying Ray’s complexity. It’s possible, as Mickey worms his way back into Ray’s world, that we are meant to feel precisely as if the show we wanted to enjoy has been interrupted — stolen, rudely — by Mickey. Should we be focusing that rage, like Ray does?
This is not the first time that I’ve been handed a finely crafted drama and immediately quibbled with the route the story seemed to be taking, barking directions from the back seat almost as soon as it pulls away from the curb — only to get drawn in more deeply as a season progresses. (Prime example? “Boardwalk Empire.” I praised its craftsmanship but mostly rolled my eyes at it characters for half a season, treating the show at first like a homework assignment. Three years later, I can’t wait for it to return.)
“Ray Donovan” hangs squarely on Schreiber’s shoulders, who wears the burden as well as he wears his tailored Armani suits. The Sunday night drama game seems to always be asking us to accept guys who are trying to do good by doing bad. (And, sadly, it’s hard not to think of the recently departed James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, against whom all such TV characters will be forever measured.) We can surely make room in our cold hearts for one more flawed hero; the hard part is that his father and brothers are part of a package deal.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.