One of Showtime’s flagship series, Ray Donovan dips its toes into the deep waters inhabited by the likes of Weeds and The Sopranos to try its luck and formulating an equivalent family drama, rife with questionable scruples and extra-marital boinking. Also, violence. Can’t forget about the violence.
Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate) plays the title character, a former bouncer from Boston who moves to California to forge a successful career as a “clean-up man.” That means: when some pampered Hollywood dink screws up, Ray is called in with his staff of two to cover their tracks, mop up the mess and potentially bend local laws and statutes to ensure that the client’s name remains squeaky clean.
Unfortunately, the sins of Ray’s past followed him from Boston, specifically his crooked father (Jon Voight, Varsity Blues), who talks a big game about the importance of family but is quick to sell them out if it means his personal advantage.
Parallel to Ray’s dicey professional shenanigans is his just-as dicey home life. His wife loves him but their relationship is strained, made more tenuous due to child abuse from Ray’s past that has resurfaced, their prone-to-violence son and their sweet, gullible daughter who, this season, finds herself in the center of some increasingly unsavory circumstances.
Season 2 finds Ray dealing with the lethal fallout of the first season and forced to balance his deteriorating family with the omnipresent threat of an ambitious, unscrupulous FBI agent (Hank Azaria, Godzilla) and a malevolent gangster putting the squeeze on Ray’s most lucrative client.
Not having seen this show before, it took some spooling up (and Wikipedia browsing) to get myself up to speed. Season 2 flows directly from Season 1 and calls back huge plot points that went unseen if you missed out on the maiden voyage. There are no one-offs in Ray Donovan; this is a complex, relationship-heavy show that hangs its hat on substantial character development.
It’s a good show — good precisely because of that focus on characterization. Schreiber doesn’t swing much out of the strike zone here, rolling as a gruff, growling antihero, but he engages throughout and really pops when the situations grow dire and skulls need cracking. And while Azaria’s manic antagonist steals every scene, Ray Donovan is powered almost entirely by Jon Voight. The patriarch of the Donovan clan is thoroughly unhinged and Voight obviously relishes the opportunity to cut loose. Even though his plotline this go-round is arguably the least interesting, no sequence that contains him is ever boring.
Narratively, the momentum sputters at times, though really picks up at the end when Ray’s foes come into clearer focus. When the writing allows Ray to wield his “cleaner” powers is when the show succeeds the most. Put it another way: when the walls close in tighter, Ray Donovan breathes.
It won’t be for everyone, but you’re looking for a biting family drama riddled with eccentric, deeply-flawed characters and the occasional emotional gut punch, Ray Donovan should have you covered. I’d start with Season 1 though.
Not Guilty. Voightastic!