Review: Ray Donovan needs to lighten up

Voight and Schreiber:Donovan has daddy issues
I just dunno about this guy Ray Donovan. His series premiered Sunday night at 10 p.m. on Showtime and in Canada on The Movie Network/Movie Central.
Broadway and film star Liev Schreiber stars as the ultimate Los Angeles fixer, a strong, silent type who does the dirty work for a powerful Hollywood law firm. He’s so effective he could save Paula Deen’s ass, even Rob Ford’s. He’s not subtle about it, just very effective. Sometimes he uses blackmail, other times, a baseball bat, but he gets the job done.
He works for his mentor, Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) and Ezra’s very bottom line partner, Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson from House). Ezra seems to be coming a little unhinged, but that’s one of Donovan’s lesser headaches.
His biggest is the sudden release from prison of his dad, Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight, in a scenery-chewing bad guy role). Mickey’s been in the joint for 20 years but it was supposed to be 25. Rumour is son Ray helped put him away.
This kept things edgy with Ray’s dysfunctional family, especially brother Terry (Eddie Marsan), a former boxer who took a few too many fists to the head, resulting in Parkinson’s. A younger brother, Bunchy (Dash Mihok), has been trying to drink away memories of being abused by a priest. He’s about to collect a big cheque from the archdiocese as the story unfolds.
They had a sister; she jumped to her death as a teen, high on drugs. What, there wasn’t already enough angst?
Ray is married, has a wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) and two teens (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby). Ray loves his wife and children but is too angry to talk to them much and is also too busy driving around busting heads, arms and using his other problem solving skills.
Helping him sort out the pathetic celebs are associates Avi (Steven Bauer), a ruthless Israeli, and Lena (Katherine Moennig), a laconic lesbian.
Way back over a year ago Showtime shared a sneak peak of the series with TV critics in Los Angeles. The sizzle reel did just that, leaving you wanting more and showcasing Schreiber and Voight’s one-two star punch.
This is a very risky move. FX tried this several years ago with a flash-in-the-pan series called Lucky. John Corbett starred and the scene they showed critics at press tour was hilarious. FX threw a party at the old Trader Vics at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There was a lot of back-slapping.
Six months later they showed us the whole episode. It only had one good scene in it—the one they had already shown us.
Lesson: it’s fine to flag a promising project, but you better be damn sure your full pilot is as good as your sneak peak.
Six months after theDonovan clip, I happened to grab a chair at the Showtime executive’s table at a TCA luncheon (this is what happens when you follow Bill Carter around with a plate). The suits in charge were sky high on our boy Donovan. They saw him as their “fixer,” the guy who could step in and fix a schedule which will soon be minus Dexter as well as The Borgias and is living off fumes with Californication. They’re counting on Donovanto do what Enlightened, for all its originality, failed to do–create a little buzz.
And that’s where I dunno about this guy Donovan. I like the way Schreiber plays him—brooding, simmering, tightly wound, but always (except when it comes to his family) in control. Schreiber told critics that, as he gets older, he looks for fewer lines, and so he’s found the perfect part in Donovan.
Schreiber’s a born series star. Plenty of presence, looks good in a suit, appeals to both men and women. I like Bauer and Moennig, too. In fact, the series could be more about just them. Those scenes remind me of an old CBS series, The Equalizer, just a straight ahead, get-even caper.
Ol’ Robert McCall (Edward Woodward) had a heart of gold deep within that bullet-proof exterior and so does Donovan, occasionally reaching out like Robin Hood as he carries out assignments.
Where Donovan bogs down, at least in the first three episodes I’ve seen, is in the family scenes. Voight has all kinds of fun as evil daddy Donovan. He narrows those ice-blue peepers, greases back his grey hair and looks like a snake.
So there’s your villain, but it just seems like creator and executive producer Ann Biderman (Southland) threw too much else into her blender to deliver a cable-complex series. Ray Donovan is part Sopranos, part Mark Wahlberg’s The Fighter, part Rescue Me, Dexterand Entourage. You could throw a half dozen other gritty, antihero dramas into the mix.
All these complex characters—is Gould’s Ezra just dotty or is he possessed?—will give the writers plenty to explore over 65 episodes. In the early going, however, it just makes one woozy. By the time Donovan’s daughter starts hanging out with the young rapper down the street you start to wish you had a flow chart.
Biderman also tackles some big themes that should be explored, such as the history of abuse in the church. As with the characters, that will probably pay storytelling dividends later.
Shows have to get to later, however. I didn’t truly “get” Enlightened until halfway through episode four. I wondered how many viewers would give it four episodes. Now, after two brilliant seasons, it is kaput.
Donovan will probably bull his way past that point, but shedding some complexity and playing up the “fixer” focus would help him bust into more living rooms now.

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