Degenerate appeal; How a high level of script, production and performance combine to make Ray Donovan more than just another anti-hero tale
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 July 2016)

The Donovans from Boston, as depicted in Ray Donovan, a first-class series from Showtime, resemble in certain ways the most loved of all TV crime families, the Sopranos of New Jersey. But there are sharp differences. The Sopranos, however addicted to law-breaking, went about their business in a friendly spirit. Tony Soprano maintained a benign attitude toward his colleagues and his family, even when circumstances made lethal violence necessary. While the Sopranos were often relaxed, the Donovans live a life of persistent anxiety interrupted by frequent spasms of rage.

Sometimes the Donovans express good feelings for one another, but only in the course of self-serving lies. They are a clan of sociopaths, a permanently dysfunctional family.

Ray himself, played by Liev Schreiber, is a brutal, unscrupulous operative who fixes the embarrassing mistakes of allegedly law-abiding citizens of Los Angeles. If a male movie star wakes up in the morning with a dead woman in his bed, the studio sends Ray racing to the scene. He will bribe, intimidate or beat anyone who can expose the star's awkward situation. The scandal will vanish before it can begin. Boxers, musicians and socialites are also among Ray's clients.

But if Ray manages to keep the lives of his clients strain-free, he has no such talent when it comes to his own family. His often-betrayed wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), is so distraught she launches into an affair with, of all people, a cop. His adolescent daughter falls dangerously in love with a handsome 34-year-old teacher. Worst of all there's Ray's father, Mickey (Jon Voight), who has lived a totally felonious life back in Boston and now, released from prison, rejoins his family in Los Angeles, threatening to wreck Ray's already difficult life.

Ray heard the bad news of a reunion in the first season of Ray Donovan, back in 2013, and determined to get his father out of town, banished, cut off, forgotten. But when the fourth season started a few weeks ago, Mickey was still on the scene.

Mickey has outlived his talent for crime and become a chronic incompetent. Worse, he doesn't know that he's lost his touch. Whatever scheme he invents fails and gets everybody, especially Ray, in trouble. He rents a motel and fills it with prostitutes, which somehow provokes a shooting war with the Armenian mafia. He devises a clever plan to rob casinos, never suspecting that casinos know more about robbery than he does. Mickey doesn't even know that no one believes his lies, least of all his son Ray. Mickey believes in the idea of family, though only the young and most innocent of the clan take him seriously. At one point Ray suspects that Mickey has revealed some family secret.

Mickey: "I wouldn't have ratted on ya, son."

Ray: "You always rat, Mickey."

Mickey: "Maybe on some low-lifes. Never on family. Never on family."

More than a trace of anti-Irish prejudice creeps into the story. Mickey may remind us of the real-life James (Whitey) Bulger, a star of Boston's organized-crime scene until an FBI detective on his payroll informed him he was about to be arrested. After decades hiding in California, he was sent to the penitentiary for racketeering, extortion, conspiracy and 11 murders.

Ray's wife yearns for the old days back East until she discovers that her Boston accent amuses snobbish Hollywood women who came to Los Angeles long ago. Priests turn up from time to time, aging pedophiles, like the fellow who permanently traumatized one of Ray's brothers. (This week another rock is thrown at the Irish from an unexpected source, the new version of Ghostbusters, in which a tour guide in an old New York mansion mentions that important 19th-century houses had gates especially designed to keep out the Irish -- though he doesn't say how these devices worked.)

Since just about everyone on Ray Donovan appears to be some variety of degenerate, why would anyone want to watch them? I've asked myself that question several times, during my 15th or 20th time viewing Ray's life and others. The answer is the high level of script, production and performance. Ann Biderman created, wrote and produced Ray Donovan. She's learned her trade on the quality side of television drama, writing for NYPD Blue and Southland (about crime on the south side of Los Angeles). She seems never to put a foot wrong. The casting is impeccable.

Schreiber always makes a convincing impression. He's played everyone from an anti-Nazi guerrilla in a powerful film, Defiance, to Hamlet at the Public Theater in New York. He dominates every scene he enters, not only because he's so tall (6-foot-3) but because he seems always to be thinking seriously about what he's doing. Perhaps because his written lines in Ray Donovan are scarce, he communicates mainly through the fierce anger in his eyes.

Voight, a too-seldom-used actor, was a surprise when he showed up as Ray's dad. He eloquently expresses the never-ending confusions of his life. When things go bad, as they usually do, his face tells us that he's groping for an explanation, or perhaps an apology. Voight has won prizes for this performance, and deserved them.

With Schreiber and Voight setting the pace, the whole cast seems committed to their work. As first-rate actors, they take the scripts and the audiences seriously. Their stories matter, they tell us, and I for one believe them.

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