If you don’t read this review I’ll completely forgive you so long as you read and obey the next sentence: Wherever you are, whenever it’s available to you, watch, consume, and enjoy Ray Donovan. I guarantee you’ll be craving the next episode as soon as you’ve watched the previous. I’ve just watched the Pilot and am now lamenting the fact I have to wait until July seventh before I can see the next episode. I’ve taken a liking to it that much already which, unashamedly, I admit that isn’t perhaps the best admission when you are trying to critique something.
For those of you who don’t know, Ray Donovan is a new summer series on Showtime, so it’s rubbing shoulders with programs like Californication, The Big C, Dexter and House of Cards. You can practically guarantee that any propriety will be shown the door before a frame is committed to celluloid.
It centres around the Donovan family. Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) is a Hollywood fixer. If your client finds themselves in a compromising situation Ray is your point man. A Boston resident working for the Hollywood elite he has made a name for himself climbing out his working class roots. He’s a family man and very protective of them having had a sister commit suicide when she was younger, but this tragedy has also caused cracks in the armour and Ray sometimes panders to some of his more attractive clients.
Ray’s brothers are Terry (played brilliantly by Eddie Marsden) and Bunchy (Dash Mihok). Terry owns a gym and teaches boxing. He’s developed Parkinson’s from one too many punches and comes across as sensible but shy. Bunchy was molested as a child by a local priest and suffers from an addictive personality, battling drug and alcohol addiction as an adult (basically the family f*ck up). In the pilot Ray finds out he has a fourth illegitimate brother called Daryl (Pooch Hall) who was the result of an affair his father had before going to jail.
Ray’s wife Abbey (Paula Malcomson) is a bit of a social climber and looks like she turns a blind eye to Ray’s line of business but is now getting sick of the weakness for women. She wants to use Ray’s connections to move into higher Hollywood circles and is anxious to get to know Ray’s dad having never met him before. Ray has a daughter Bridgit (Kerris Dorsey) and a son Conor (Devon Bagby), both believe their grandfather to be dead.
This brings us then to Mickey Donovan (Jon Voigt – the greatest leer in Hollywood). Mickey has just been released from a 20-year jail sentence and is eager to reunite with his family. He’s a charmer that easily manages people but is, in fact, a very bad man and only Ray see’s through him. Mickey quickly ingratiates himself back into his sons and Ray’s family’s life which threatens everything Ray has worked for. Mickey seems to blame Ray for his jail time and has some old scores he wants to settle.
Rounding out the cast is Avi (Steven Bauer), Ray’s right hand man and muscle and Lena (Katherine Moenning) that manages Ray’s office and research. This just leaves Erza Golman (Elliot Gould) who is an old friend and collaborator of Ray’s. In the pilot he has just lost his wife and, it seems, his mind as a result. He thinks he should confess everything he and Ray have done and will no doubt (from watching the pilot) be a great fun character to follow as he goes through a crisis of conscience. The scene when his mistress turns up at his wife’s wake is hilarious.
So we have a really solid cast, but what is the program like? Well I can tell you this, the writing is solid and the cinematography is interesting. There is a deliberate focus on the polar opposites in Ray’s life. Based in Hollywood everything around the stars and their houses has been shot very cleanly, bright open camerawork to portray the beautiful people and the opulence they enjoy. This is the world Ray aspires to move around in.
In contrast to that Ray’s brothers boxing gym, and some of the places Ray visits to ‘fix’ things are shot in what I could only describe as through a nicotine filter. The sets are cluttered, walls covered in photos, desks piled high with papers or magazine, shelves full of junk all giving the shot a very cramped feel and the illusion that most of the shots are more ‘close up’ than they actually are, the backdrops are horribly yellow with generally harsh strip lighting which increases the imagery of decay or sickness. Ray’s Boston accent drawl is more pronounced here too (his accent is generally clean when in the company of employers etc), another indicator of the two sides of his existence.
There are also the little things that make LA, well, LA. I laughed out loud when an actor, sitting in his lounge surrounded by awards with a drink that looked like it has some celery in it, hires Ray to follow the girlfriend he is cheating on his wife with shows him out the door of his house, and upon closing the door uses a hand sanitizer cream because he touched the door handle. Of course, this is after he tries to deconstruct Ray’s persona with his ‘actor’s perception,’ kind of like what Danny DeVito did so well in Get Shorty. It hints that the series is going to make a mockery of that LA image much like I guess Californication has done before and I’m quite happy to wait and see what they come up with.
There is also an the interesting ways in which Ray solves various problems such as giving a stalker two options: ‘The bag or the bat?’ The bag turns out to be several packets of green dye in which Ray makes the stalker bath, turning himself into a washed out effigy of The Hulk. It doesn’t stop the problem though leading to an unusual scene later in the episode so it looks as if the writers aren’t afraid to have a little fun which bodes well.
The show – at least the Pilot – doesn’t seem to fall into an episodic format. You’d be forgiven for thinking (as I did) that each episode would probably be built around the problem of the week that needs fixing, but it doesn’t seem to be. That part of the episode was done and dusted within the first 20 minutes and served the purpose of introducing Ray’s family, and his work team in one nice little tidy package that didn’t seem contrived at all and it left the rest of the episode to build on the overall story of Ray and his life. I think Ray Donovan is definitely an Onion, and over the course of time well be exploring many, many layers.
Of course, the main story arc for the first season is the return of Ray’s dad, Mickey, into his life. Jon Voigt makes Mickey look easy and I think he is going to be brilliant. He looks like he’s having the time of his life playing the character and we even get to enjoy the best leer in Hollywood as he ogles a mother breast feeding her baby on a plane trip. That look alone justified watching the episode, it’s just brilliant.
The episode actually opens with Mickey getting released from jail and then being driven through Boston to a church. You’d be forgiven for thinking Irish-catholic mobster → jail release → confession (because I did), but actually Mickey walks into the church basement and shoots the priest there in the head. OK, this is not a nice guy. Mickey is obviously trouble, it’s not until the next scene in the Donovan household when Ray’s daughter is discussing a family tree school project with her younger brother and tells him about Bunchy having been molested by a priest that you put two and two together.
Mickey is bad news for Ray. It’s even hinted in an exchange between Ray and Ezra that they were responsible for getting Mickey jailed and Ray warns his wife that letting Mickey back into the family will destroy everything they’ve tried to build. Unknown to Ray, Mickey has already been writing to his wife and between Ray’s transgressions, messing up the job for the client I mentioned earlier, an actor on the board of one of the schools she wants their daughter to attend, an actor who tells her he’ll do everything he can to ensure her daughter never makes it into that school because Ray let him down, that Abbey lets Mickey into the house to meet his Grandchildren at the end of the episode.
There we have it, without giving away the entire plot of the Pilot I can tell you that Ray Donovan is not only interesting to watch, it’s well shot and cast and promises to be a great show. It’s a show that you start to root for almost immediately, you want to buckle down and enjoy the journey that Ray will take you on. There is enough intrigue there to make you wonder what will happen.
How will Ray’s marriage work out – there is a definite James Gandolfini/Eddie Falco dynamic there that worked so well in The Sopranos. How will Mickey drive the family apart, he looks the charmer and will probably fool everyone but Ray? Will Ezra have an actual breakdown and ruin everything Ray has done by confession? There is that and a hundred other possibilities that the Pilot suggests and it all comes gift-wrapped in the hellish underbelly of filth and excess that is the seedier side of Hollywood and I love it. I want more, and I want it now.
Oh, and if anyone wonders exactly what the hell I was meaning when I mentioned Jon Voights legendary leer, see for yourself here!
You can watch the pilot here (if it plays in your country).