Ray Donovan is a show with problems, and that statement can apply on a few different levels. But I’m being very broad right now—a bit like the show itself—and speaking for the quality of the drama. Last week, we dealt with the first two episodes, and after that dismal beginning, the critical narrative for the season boils down to two main questions:
1. Can this show, which was painfully bad, evolve to actually become a good drama?
2. Can this show, failing to rise to anything resembling a quality product, nevertheless entertain us?
The second standard is obviously a lesser redemption, but as the writer assigned with following this season to the bitter end, believe me, I’d take it. With that in mind, let’s tackle Episode Three (annoyingly titled “Twerk”) with a bit with the old Bad News/Good News format. I know the order is usually reversed, but the Donovans have not earned that privilege quite yet.
Bad News: At the start of “Twerk,” Ray’s wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) reached a peak level of obnoxious. After allowing Ray’s ex-con father around her kids for a full day last week, despite her husband’s repeated warnings that the man is evil, she reacts to his understandable anger with weird spite, taking some of his nicest suit jackets to a Goodwill thrift store and dumping them on the counter. When shit like this happens, you almost feel like there’s a deep vein of misogyny running through the writing staff. As in, “let’s make our main female character into a vindictive stereotype and pile bad decision on bad decision, all while making her financially dependent on her husband, who is trying the best he can to deal with her unchecked hysteria.”
Good News: After seeing a picture of Jesus Christ (he forgives) and doing yoga, she realizes the extent of her spite and retrieves the coats. Was the symbolism a bit heavy-handed? Yes, but at least it shows some nuance. As someone who believes that Skyler White comes super close to ruining an otherwise great show in Breaking Bad, I’m not ready to watch something as mediocre as Ray Donovan sacrifice itself at the altar of the Horrible Wife Character. Guys, am I…am I starting to care? (Answer: No.)
Bad News: Mickey, Ray’s horrible father, represents the greatest misuse of a legendary actor (Jon Voight) since that time they made Dustin Hoffman play Guy Fieri in the musical comedy Chef, I’m Cooked! Oh wait…that never happened? Okay, then, this is the worst. The lowlight comes when Mickey, swaggering around with his mouth agape and generally having no empathy for anyone, tries to “lighten the mood” at his son Bunchy’s support group for victims of pedophilia by telling…pedophile jokes. It’s as awkward as it sounds, and it gets worse when one of the other victims sobs while retelling an experience when he was orally raped, and Mick replies, “I could go for some oral rape right about now!” It was so bad, so clumsy, and so insensitive as a plot device or whatever the hell it was that I almost didn’t want to write about it, but really, you can’t get away from something like that. Later, Mick goes to a public library to watch twerk videos (I’m assuming there’s a second, metaphorical reason why the episode is called “Twerk,” but really, who cares?). You get the feeling these little quirks are supposed to be funny, but they’re just cringe-inducing, and not in an effective way.
Good News: We actually have a semi-interesting plot surrounding Mick. The same day he was released from jail, he murdered the priest he thought molested his son, but it turns out it was his brother. Now Mick has some nefarious aims that we don’t quite know—it seems like Bunchy’s $1.4 million settlement from the church isn’t safe, for one, and also, why does Mick want to be around Ray’s family so bad?—and Ray wants him out of his life. In service of that aim, he sends his lieutenant Avi (one of the show’s only compelling figures, played by Steven Bauer) to find the guy who drove Mick from prison to where he killed the priest. A conversation in a grimy Boston pub and $50,000 later, the driver is willing to testify. Unbeknownst to Ray, though, things will probably get complicated because of an FBI agent who used Mick to take down a Boston crime syndicate, thus cutting off five years of his jail sentence, and now has his sights set on Ray.
Bad News: So far, it seems like Ray’s job as a fixer is shoehorned into the family drama, and this episode was no different. The B story involved trying to help a successful neighborhood rapper (clumsily introduced when Ray stormed into his house to rip the speaker plugs out of the wall because the music was too loud) get legal custody of a boy who has junkie parents in Compton and is supposed to be “the black Justin Bieber.” The entire arc of this story is literally Ray visiting the mother, feeling sorry that she’s become a junkie after a semi-successful career as a backup singer, and then getting her to sign her son away. After that, the son hits on Ray’s daughter. “Afterthought” is too generous an adjective for the plotline, though you get the sense we’ll have to waste precious (OK, not so precious) minutes in a future episode watching the relationship with the daughter unfold.
Good News: I got nothing, gang, so let’s finish with some more bad news. Elliott Gould’s character (Ezra Goodman, Ray’s boss) continues to verge in and out of insanity while whining about his ex-wife, Ray’s lesbian assistant Lena continues to get meaningless screen time as the writers stumble about trying to make her into something we care about, the attorney Stu Feldman continues to be a walking stereotype who leads every conversation with something blunt and sexual to signify that he’s a corrupted Hollywood moneymaker, we didn’t see Ray’s son this episode and Ray’s brother Terry veers between a gruff Parkinson’s victim with a heart of gold to an autistic Rain Man figure who is completely incapable of talking to females in anything but an awkward, staccato burst.
So, let’s answer our questions from earlier. Can the show evolve to become a good drama? Helllllll no. Can it entertain us on a consistent basis? I will happily admit that there were times when I caught myself being engrossed in the plot, and Liev Schreiber is doing a serviceable job in the lead role. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of the hour was still totally dispensable at best, and by minute 45 I had the same creeping thought: “Holy shit, when does this end?” But when I close my eyes, I can imagine a world where the writers cut the dead weight and turn the show into something lean and mean that can actually justify an hour of our attention.
I couldn’t say that last week, and I guess that means there’s a glimmer of hope. But it’s so faint that it barely registers, and so unlikely that it may just be the latest of Ray Donovan’s many problems.