When critics go negative, they tend to let the vitriol fly in an obscenely joyous way that makes it seem as though they enjoy ripping a piece of art to shreds. The truth, at least in my case, is that writing negative reviews is a drag. You remember the Tolstoy saying about families? You can reverse it for art; every successful work is brilliant in its own way, while every failure has the same predictable flaws. If every negative review adhered to a “just the facts” approach, they would all look identical. Which is why writers have to get inventive (read: dismissive, sarcastic, vicious) when they pan. Great television shows produce a wealth of talking points, and a reviewer can use the creative strength to inspire their own. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Bad television shows, on the other hand, put the creative burden squarely on the writer, who then has to dream up entertaining methods of saying that the show failed for the usual boring reasons.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m glad Showtime’s Ray Donovan finally found an approach that worked—or at least made things interesting—in episode five, “The Golem.”
The problem with shows that start off terribly—and man, Ray Donovan started off terribly—the really big problem is that most of the characters aren’t pulling their weight. If you’re lucky enough to have a few gems in the cast, the path to recovery involves turning the spotlight on them while politely but firmly dimming it for the deficient parts. In Ray Donovan, there are four characters worth tracking:
1. Ray Donovan—Liev Schreiber’s gruff performance as the title character is mostly compelling, at least when the writers don’t turn him into too much of a grunting caveman. At his best, he has an animal ferocity combined with a quiet intelligence, and you can’t look away.
2. Mickey Donovan—Ray’s dad, played by the legendary Jon Voight. Again, Mickey often veers into a caricature of the politically incorrect, swaggering old hoodlum. An example: In last night’s episode, he went to a bank with his son Bunchy to help him cash a $1.4 million check from the Catholic church as restitution for the priest that molested Bunchy as a kid. When the teller showed surprise at the amount, Mickey mugged for the camera. “My boy’s a millionaire,” he said. “He earned it…the hard way.” The line, and the leering smile that followed, makes Mickey seem crass and stupid, and there are far too many of these moments. On the other hand, when the writers treat him as a flawed but street smart ex-con who uses his aggressive attitude as a weapon to help get him what he wants, Voight’s acting genius emerges. Basically, he becomes interesting the moment they treat him like a real person, and not a mouthpiece for stupidity or a symbol of sheer evil.
3. Avi, Ray’s right-hand man—Steven Bauer steals the scene whenever they let him, which isn’t often. Watching him and Ray work is almost always the best part of each episode, and the two enjoy what might be the best on-screen chemistry of any pair on the show.
4. Ezra Goldman, Ray’s boss—Played by Elliott Gould, a legend in his own right, who has moments of really, really awful acting. It’s bad enough that you think Gould might be over the hill, but then he redeems himself with brilliant scenes, like his meeting with Mickey last night when the two old enemies shared their memories and established an uneasy peace, only for Goldman to break down and hallucinate a vision of Mickey as “The Golem”—a function of a brain tumor that’s stealing his sanity as it kills him. It’s a poetic and visually affecting scene, and hopefully does not imply with awkward foreshadowing that Mickey is THE DEVIL. When the scene finished, it was so good that I even forgot we were seeing Voight and Gould on screen at the same time—a dream combination, especially if you love ‘70s American films like I do.
Everybody else in Ray Donovan—and I mean literally everybody—is disposable. That goes for his boring kids, his mawkish wife (Paula Malcomson’s awful BAWWWWSTAHHN accent should be a crime), his whiny boss Lee Drexler, his brothers and his pointless half-brother, Stu Feldman, the various celebrities and the hot pop star who keeps using extreme tactics like handcuffing herself to his towel rack in an effort to sleep with him.
However, we have to distinguish between characters who aren’t important, but who may serve the plot and provide an entertaining moment or two, and those who are actively detracting from the show. Unfortunately, in a show about family, the worst offenders in the latter category happen to be Ray’s closest relations. It begins with his children, Bridget and Conor, who seem to be going off the rails in ways that are stereotypical and maybe, in Bridget’s case, even offensive. You see, she’s dating the troubled black kid next door, and it leads to weird moments of almost-racism from her parents as things progress. In Conor’s case, he’s just drinking a lot and puking on watches and hitting kids on the back of the head with football tees, so what can you do?
As for the brothers, last night’s episode followed Bunchy around as he behaved like a dull 14-year-old. I think the writers were going for a psychologically incisive approach, implying that his immaturity is a remnant of his abuse, but it came off instead as a “crap, what are we doing to have Bunchy do this week?” approach. In the end, he bought a stupid bike, rode it around for a while and then bought a crappy house. As for Terry, we sit through interminable scenes with his nurse girlfriend before we find out she’s actually married with at least one kid. And let me tell you, with apologies for bluntness, that it is nearly impossible to give a shit.
And then there’s Abby, Ray’s wife. Even though I know the less we say about her, the better, I still haven’t wrapped my mind around the scene where a “life coach” from her yoga class sits down with her at an outdoor cafe and asks if her husband is emotionally supportive. It had to be one of the most aimless, ineffectual scenes I’ve ever watched. They’ll probably become lesbian lovers, or some other cliche, but for now it’s impossible to fathom why we were subjected to this awkwardness.
The problem with these five characters is that they take time and momentum away from the parts anyone might actually want to watch. They waste valuable time, and they need to be jettisoned like extra baggage on a sputtering plane. And that’s where the good news comes in, because in “The Golem,” director Dan Attias (whose credits include Homeland, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Walking Dead) does a wonderful job creating a raw, tense atmosphere revolving around three of the four most important characters. The writers got a little smarter this week; they didn’t write out the parasitic relatives completely, but they showed the first signs of relegating them to the sidelines.
Schreiber has never been better as Ray, trying to manage Ezra’s mental collapse with the puzzle of why his father managed to beat an open-and-shut murder rap. It turns out he’s in the employ of the FBI, and Ray discovers that he’s one of the targets when he and Avi break into the agent’s house. The scenes with Goldman are equally grim. He runs over a tree branch in the beginning, and is convinced that he’s hit a person. Ray only discovers later that Goldman is seeing things, and the plot of the entire episode revolves around these delusions. And Mickey’s monologue about why he turned informant in prison—”I knew who held the stick,” he says, remembering a guard cracking his friend’s head open after a fight—is a rare high point in a show with a weakness for banal platitudes. For the first time in the series, L.A. looks and feels like the grimy, squalid town that the Ray Donovan universe has needed, and it becomes a shadowy character enhancing the movements in the underworld.
The episode ends with several beautiful sequences—Ray with Avi in a dark basement, discovering his own photograph in a list of FBI targets, Mickey meeting with the agent on a desolate Los Angeles bluff and Goldman confessing the tumor that’s destroying him. Finally, after witnessing the death of two junkies he’d dealt with in an earlier episode, Ray drinks himself into a stupor, succumbs to the seduction of the pop star and retires to his apartment where he sobs alone at his desk.
It was a stirring moment, and then it got ruined when Abby showed up (she had stolen a key from his desk) and squawked, “who the fawwwk ahhh you, Rahhhy?” It’s no surprise that a show loaded with cliches couldn’t resist one more, sabotaging the end of its own best episode with a failed attempt at interweaving two unrelated plots. What is surprising, though, is that I’m actually interested in watching next week to see if they can get it right. Strong shows all succeed for interesting reasons, and for the first time, Ray Donovan has my attention.