Ever since Showtime aired the first episode of this series back in 2013, Ray Donovan has irritated me. Not the show itself, you understand, but more because I’ve never been able to watch it, or really get a proper grip on whether it’s even the type of show that might interest me if I could. In the UK, it’s aired on a channel that isn’t carried by my cable provider; since it clearly doesn’t fit into a neat genre it’s usually unhelpfully classified simply as ‘drama’, and the series description tends to be just as broad and sparse. As a result it’s a show that’s appeared on the television listings tantalisingly out of my reach, while the DVD boxsets that started coming out a year later were too expensive to buy sight unseen when there was a real risk that I’d watch the first ten minutes and hate it.
Three and a half years later I’ve finally been granted a way in, after finding that the first three seasons of the show are available free to Amazon Prime subscribers. That has allowed me to dip a toe into the world of Ray Donovan and finally work out what the show is actually all about, and whether I like it or not.
First the basics: the series, created by writer Ann Biderman, is about its eponymous character Ray Donovan. He grew up poor as the son of a small-time criminal on the wrong side of Boston, and as an adult he subsequently moved to the West Coast where he has since made good money and a name for himself as a ‘fixer’ for Hollywood stars who find themselves in trouble. Ray’s duties include everything from covert (and illegal) surveillance in order to gather evidence for use in a messy divorce, to stopping sex scandals being picked up by the tabloids by any means necessary, or applying a baseball bat to deter a celebrity stalker, and even taking care of a client who wakes up after a wild party to find himself in bed with a corpse. Nothing appears to faze the implacable Ray who always seems to know exactly what’s needed to resolve any given situation – at least, he does when we meet him in the first of the 12 episodes that make up the first season.
Having introduced Ray in the first scene of the show, the rest of the season concentrates on unravelling his world and deconstructing his outward persona to show us what lies underneath. In the process, Ray Donovan becomes a study of what it means to be a man in the 21st century: he is a father and a son, a brother and a husband, a seemingly ordinary happily married man living in the suburbs of LA, wealthy enough to buy anything that his family wants on a day-to-day level but still looked down upon by the LA super-rich who can tell from his south Boston roots that he and his wife are not ‘one of them’. That means Ray and Abby are unwelcome at their exclusive country clubs and their kids not good enough to be admitted to the top prep schools, no matter how much work Ray does for the rich and famous or how many scrapes he gets them out of.
Naturally the main focus of the show is on Ray himself, who is played with glowering intensity by Liev Schreiber. However it’s soon clear that this is no one man show, and Paula Malcomson gives an impressive performance as his wife Abby who is growing frustrated that she knows so little about the love of her life. As well as their two children Bridget and Connor (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby), Ray also lives close to his brothers: Terry (the ever-brilliant Eddie Marsan) is a former boxer who now runs his own gym but is afflicted by Parkinson’s, while Bunchy (Dash Mihok) has mental health and addiction issues after being abused as a child by a Roman Catholic priest. Ray is also coming to terms with the arrival of previously unknown half-brother Daryll (Pooch Hall), while his work life includes loyal right-hand man Avi (Steven Bauer), their office manager Lena (Katherine Moennig), and Ray’s main client and long-time friend and mentor Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould). This relatively stable set-up is blown apart when Ray’s father Mickey is released early from prison after serving 20 years for murder. He immediately crosses America to insinuate himself into the lives of his children, and his reckless behaviour ends up destabilising all of them, not least because of the fact that Mickey has become an undercover informant for the FBI. He also knows the truth about his incarceration – that it was a frame-up devised and executed by Ray as his first professional ‘fix’ – and is out for payback no matter who gets hurt.
Schreiber might be the star of the show, but the producers must have known that the minute they signed up Jon Voight to play Mickey Donovan they would have an inveterate show-stealing presence vying for the spotlight. Voight never knowingly underplays his hand, but here his bizarre antics are entirely fitting for the larger-than-life patriarch who irritates, angers, amuses, terrorises, charms, repels and seduces those around him by turn. And then just when you believe that things can’t get any more oversized, the show introduces James Woods in a cameo role as a life-long enemy of the Donovans who is out to kill Mickey: any scenery that had previously been left unchewed up to this point doesn’t last long thereafter.
What results from these ingredients is a new style of drama of a type that began life with The Sopranos almost two decades ago, with that show’s New Jersey, Italian-American Mafia setting replaced by Ray Donovan’s Los Angeles, Irish-American Hollywood world – a different type of organised crime, you might say. Like The Sopranos, this is a study of a particularly large schism between a man’s family and emotional life, and that of his old school über-macho professional world. One requires him to be open and honest and loving, while the other requires him at times to be a cold-blooded killer who will stop at nothing and not think twice about the consequences of his actions. These two lives never sit comfortably, but it’s when elements from one start to leak into the other that the situation becomes truly untenable: Ray’s violent reactions to commonplace domestic situations such as his daughter’s first boyfriend end up terrifying those around him, while his emotional needs also start to cloud his ability to do his job at the office meaning that things start collapsing around him and bodies begin to drop with alarming frequency.
In the process of telling this story, the show itself is also forced to straddle two very different dramatic worlds, which it does so knowingly in such a way as to benefit from broadening its appeal beyond any one single genre. Ray’s violent working life will connect with a traditional male audience who like movies with guns, blood and fistfights; but the corresponding emotionally mature drama should also draw in a female audience that wouldn’t typically like a show set around the world of boxing and white collar gangsters. Ray’s wife is the centre of the latter strand of the show and Paula Malcomson gives arguably the best performance of anyone as she demands but fails to receive ’emotional honesty’ from her husband after she surprises him and finds him alone and weeping for reasons he won’t – or can’t – discuss with her. There’s also another scene in the gym where Abby walks in on a fraught situation involving all the Donovan brothers where she takes one hard long look: Malcomson manages to convey without a single word of dialogue an entire gamut of thought, and you can see the exact moment that she figures out what’s happening and where she decides to turn around and walk out again without another sound. It’s a genuine masterclass in acting in just a few seconds, so much more beautifully eloquent than anything that Voight and Woods get to overplay during the season.
Actually that’s not being fair to either Voight or Woods, who both give strong and subtle performances underneath their surface hallmark swagger and bravado. The show uses them both effectively to provide humour, energy and excitement to a show that otherwise might have been too dark and dour. In fact all the performances are really top-notch, with even the young actors playing Ray’s children getting their individual moments to shine in the story. Overall the first season is constructed as one long drama, although some episodes come close to being standalone: one sees the Donovans doing the rounds checking out potential new private schools for the kids while Ray juggles work in the background; another is focussed around Fite Night at the gym which has echoes of Michael Corleone’s evening at the opera in the Godfather films; and another is dominated by a claustrophobic situation depicting the bloody Reservoir Dogs-style aftermath of Bunchy’s latest disastrous attempt to finally put his childhood trauma behind him.
The excellent performances, quality writing and great direction across the board (the season finale is helmed by none other than Michael Apted) together with its intelligent mash-up of dramatic genres meant that it didn’t take long for me to realise that I had truly invested in all the characters and as a result really liked Ray Donovan, a lot more than I had expected to given those bald synopses which had done little to give me a sense of what to expect or alternatively a strong reason to find out. Maybe this longer review will help make things a little bit clearer for other potential viewers similarly wondering whether to give it a try, or perhaps this post will be just as incapable of conveying the true sense of the thing. Or maybe Ray Donovan is just the sort of show that needs to be watched to be understood and appreciated, and nothing else will suffice.
In which case, the only thing I can say in conclusion is that it will be a good use of your time and money to track down the series and give it a try in whatever form you are able, whether on satellite or DVD or online, because there’s every chance that after one episode you’ll simply have to continue watching the second immediately thereafter. And the third, and the fourth, and the … You get the idea. I certainly don’t need to swing a baseball bat in a threatening manner to convince you, surely?
The first three seasons of Ray Donovan are available on Amazon Prime and on DVD in the UK. A fourth season has aired on Sky Atlantic, and a fifth has been commissioned by Showtime to be broadcast later in 2017.