I believe we have TV critic Dan Fienberg to thank for the useful phrase “Vocational Irony Narrative.” You’ve seen this plenty of times: the protagonist of a TV series is competent in his or her professional life, in a way that precisely contrasts with the problems in his or her personal life. Tony Soprano is in charge of the Family but—here comes the irony—not of his family! Tommy Gavin saves lives—but who will rescue him?
Into this tradition comes Showtime’s new antihero drama Ray Donovan (debuting Sunday), in which the title character (Liev Schreiber) is a Hollywood “fixer” by way of South Boston who, by cunning or violence, can make anyone’s problems go away. All together now: …but not his own!
Ray Donovan could have simply been no more than that, and in much of its pilot, it seems like it will be. The first episode suggests a combination serial-procedural, in which a bat-swinging Ray disappears troubles and scandals–a stalker, a sex scandal, a dead girl turning up in an athlete’s bed–while coping with tensions in his marriage and growing pains for his teenage kids. I probably wouldn’t have watched more than one episode of that show: despite some colorful casting–including Paula Malcolmson as Ray’s wife Abby and Elliott Gould as his patron Ezra–its tinseltown scandals are familiar and the showbiz-related characters are cliches.
Fortunately, Ray’s problems prove much more interesting and intractable than the ones he can dispatch with a few cracks of a Louisville Slugger. (The show’s promotions feature that tool so prominently they may as well call the show Bat Man.) His biggest—and really the root of all of them—is his dad. Mickey (Jon Voight), a career criminal and the reason Ray moved his family the hell to L.A., just got out of prison after 20 years. Now he’s shown up in California and out to settle scores, collect some stashed earnings, and reassert himself as father, and grandfather, whether his estranged son likes it or not. (He’s also looking to, er, make up for lost time; first thing he asks his Mr. Hollywood son, showing his age, is if Ray could score him a date with Chita Rivera or Diahann Carroll.)
Though it doesn’t much break the cable-antihero-with-troubles mode, Ray Donovan comes alive with the arrival of Voight’s scary yet charming Mickey, who’s equal parts gramps and Godfather, a sentient Viagra pill with a gun. While Ray orders him the hell away from his family, Mickey insinuates himself anyway, and also draws in Ray’s other brothers: Bunchy (Dash Mihok), twitchy and broken from childhood sex abuse by a priest; Terry (Eddie Marsan), a Parkinson’s-suffering boxer; and Daryll (Pooch Hall), Ray’s new-found brother, whose mother is black.
It’s Schreiber’s, and especially Voight’s, performances that make Ray Donovan in its early going. (I’ve seen five episodes.) Schreiber plays Ray as a beleaguered badass whose menace is all in a day’s work. He carries himself like a younger version of Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad, the professional tough guy who’s both empathetic and scary precisely because there’s nothing personal about his violence; it’s a job, and he’d rather spare himself and his targets the trouble. (It’s when his investigations become personal–as with his dad–that he gets himself into trouble.)
And Voight makes Mickey more than a cartoon heavy, with ample help from the dialogue. (The show’s created by Southland’s Ann Biderman, who wrote the pilot.) We see early on what brutality he’s capable of, and how badly he’s messed up the lives of his kids and by extension the people in their lives. Yet he’s a kind of charming sociopath, and there’s something almost endearing in his effort to be the same virile middle-aged tough guy he went into prison as—Voight even carries himself as if he physically believes himself 20 years younger than he is. (His time-warp existence manifests hilariously at a public library, where he discovers that, since he went in the joint, the world has given us both the World Wide Web and twerking videos.)
But after five episodes, Ray Donovan is still some good performances in search of a show. It feels made up of pieces of other antihero dramas–a little Sopranos here, a little Brotherhood there, even a little Entourage around the edges. Ray is so far too much a cipher to be an engaging focal character, and his flaws and failings are those of so many middle-aged cable ass-kickers in the past decade. Meanwhile, the culture-clash angle, between phony L.A. and real-as-a-brick South Boston, just makes both elements feel more caricatured. (Malcolmson, so excellent in dramas like Deadwood, does her best in the Tough Southie Lady box the show puts Abby into.)
The show is best, actually, when it cracks its brooding, Oedipal, serious-drama glumness and struts its stuff as the slightly weirder story of Mickey, the senior citizen on the make trying to fit back into the free world. In these moments—one in episode 5, say, where Mickey finds himself unwinding un-self-consciously on the dance floor of a gay bar—Ray Donovan feels less like a pastiche and a creation in itself.
The show is called Ray Donovan, not Mickey Donovan, though. And here too, Ray can’t yet escape the shadow of the old man.