Warning: This review contains spoilers for the Ray Donovan episode ‘The Bag or the Bat’
It seems that with Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Dexter all drawing to a close next season, Showtime decided there was a void in the ‘troubled white anti-hero’ market that needed filling. And while they weren’t exactly wrong, I can’t help but wish their newest venture into troubled white anti-hero drama didn’t feel like it was just checking boxes of what we can expect from the genre.
Interestingly, the Ray Donovan pilot, ‘The Bag or the Bat’ doesn’t even open with its eponymous fixer (played well, but predictably by Liev Schreiber). Instead we see his father, Mickey (played by Jon Voight, and the highlight of the episode). Afterwards, we are presented with sweeping shots of Ray Donovan’s tinseltown setting while ‘Hooray For Hollywood’ is crooned away in the background. But of course, since we doubtless need to be reminded this is a modern and gritty drama, the music soon segues into something more modern. Only then are we presented with the first images of Donovan himself, as he is woken by his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson, who seems to be trying nothing more than an Edie Falco impression).
The phrase ‘Edie Flaco impression’ was the first thing I noticed about her performance, and as I continued to watch the episode, it kept returning to the back of my head, and I get the feeling that Ray Donovan really wishes it was The Sopranos. The eponymous fixer is divided by his professional and familial responsibilities, his wife wants to make the most of his not inconsiderable means, and his family, including two brothers – one of whom was sexually abused by a priest, the other having developed Parkinson’s Disease due to boxing injuries – is one of the more dysfunctional ensembles I’ve seen in a while. The problem is, I feel like Ray Donovan could be watched while only half paying attention, since so much of it feels like its familiar ground.
It’s not even bad necessarily, and it does in fact have some pretty great moments. Any of the scenes where we see Donovan at work as a ‘fixer’ for the Beverly Hills elite certainly stand out. They’re well directed and gripping, as well as feeling more fresh than the family drama side, which the show struggles to balance effectively with the more immediately interesting elements. But the problem there is that the characters in the ‘fixer’ sections of the pilot are often less interesting than the family characters. That and the plots in the ‘fixer’ sections, one of which involves an action star accidentally taking home a transsexual, are more interesting than the family ones, which creates an interesting problem for Ray Donovan, wherein it’s interesting characters are stuck with less interesting stories.
While I can very much take or leave Donovan’s wife, Voight brings much needed gravitas and malice to the fore, and Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok as Ray’s brothers (Marsan is the boxer, Mihok was abused) add an interesting dynamic that could be capitalised on. My only fear is that it won’t be approached in a new or particularly interesting way.
As the eponymous Hollywood ‘fixer’, Schreiber does good work, we see both sides of his character, and both are given solid characterisation. Particularly in his more sinister moments – when he tortures, and later quite brutally beats a potential ‘problem’ that’s stalking an old client and friend – is when Schreiber’s performance is at its strongest, every gesture and word is given sinister meaning, and it feels more immediately gripping than his more, for want of better phrasing, sensitive side, that of course makes an appearance near the end of the episode.
All in all, it’s fairly interesting material that’s well acted almost universally. And like all pilots do, it effectively lays the groundwork for a series. My only problem is, it’s a series that contains material that we’ve seen before. And with the series that clearly influence Ray Donovan being so good, it begs the question, why should we continue to watch it when putting on a DVD of The Sopranos allows us to see similar material, quite frankly, done better?
Episode MVP: Jon Voight