Ray Donovan Review: "Housewarming" (Episode 1.06)
“Housewarming,” episode six of Showtime’s new drama Ray Donovan—and, by the way, the last episode of the show we’ll be reviewing at Paste—contains in microcosmic form everything that’s promising and frustrating about a show that currently qualifies as an interesting failure.
As with last week’s episode, the best of the series to date, the atmosphere works brilliantly. There’s a dark ambiance pervading the Ray Donovan universe, and while the general vibe is more Detroit than Los Angeles, the lack of decaying glamor over the past two weeks hasn’t hurt the show’s development. Liev Schreiber continues to cut a compelling figure as Donovan, the fixer from South Boston who operates with brutal efficiency in his “day job,” but struggles to negotiate the complexities of a family life that began to deteriorate the moment his father Mickey (Jon Voight) was released from prison. Voight himself retains at least some of the magnetism that made him one of the best actors of the ‘70s, Steven Bauer continues to do great work with limited screen time as Donovan’s henchman Avi and Elliott Gould shifts adeptly between bouts of senility and ruthlessness as Ray’s boss Ezra Goldman.
These men are the fulcrum on which the show pivots, and the real noteworthy development of the last three episodes has been a differentiation between the narratives that hold our interest, the ones that waste our time in a benign way, and the ones that are so superfluous they actually detract from the show.
In the first category, the covert war between Mickey and Ray continues to succeed as a conflict with elements of tension and subtlety that the rest of the plotlines could dearly use. Mickey made it out of prison early because he turned information for the FBI, and now his operating agent, Van Miller, is asking him to betray a network of criminals that includes Ray. When a set-up designed to send Mickey back to prison failed, Ray could tell something was amiss and sent Avi to sniff out the trouble. They discovered the FBI link, and in a plot turn that admittedly borders on the outrageous, Avi spiked the Agent Miller’s coffee with LSD at a diner. A day of horror ensued, punctuated by a traffic stop (again, Donovan’s maneuvering) that resulted in a tape of Miller acting, um…unprofessionally…and culminated with Donovan and Avi confronting him in his own basement with an ultimatum: Quit or be exposed. When he recovers from the drugs, though, Miller puts a dent in their plan, with a single phone call advising Donovan to “go fuck himself.” It’s on.
Unfortunately, that’s all the progress we made in “Housewarming” on the FBI front. It worked well enough, but looking ahead, it seems like a bad sign that the writers are already steering the ship into near-absurd territory with the LSD twist. One of the main challenges of any show where you know damn well that the title character will neither be killed off or go to prison is how you sustain believability without resolving a story too quickly. Many shows, like Justified and Sons of Anarchy, are able to survive on season-long arcs that move toward their own resolution and don’t depend totally on the health and safety of the main characters. Ray Donovan, on the other hand, will have to juggle father and son, setting them against each other while (presumably) keeping both alive and jail-free. That requires a deft touch, a quality we haven’t seen in the current crop of writers. And when you resort to LSD after just six episodes to protect Mickey and restore the balance between father and son, it’s an omen that future plot twists will descend into ridiculous realms.
In that sense, there may be more trouble ahead for the writers. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the show, because the FBI theme is carrying the rest of the show on its shoulders. There are several trivial aspects of the show, such as the short shrift received by Ray’s actual job. He’s the man who protects celebrities from themselves, but in each episode so far, we’ve only seen that side of his life in irrelevant tangents. He’s covered up sex, drugs and crime, but only for five minutes each week, and again last night we saw a brief professional interlude that didn’t connect to anything else. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself why they even bother.
The same could be said for the adventures of Ray’s kids, one of whom is drinking and doing drugs, and one of whom is dating a neighbor who might be bad for her. I won’t get into specifics, because the truth is that I’m beyond caring. The actors seem fine—they’re not the problem. The writing is just so weak on that front that you watch them glide in and out of perilous situations without investing anything emotionally. As a counterpoint, think back to the Sopranos and Tony’s son A.J. (Robert Iler) was truly one of the worst child actors ever to be cast on a major drama, and yet the events of A.J.‘s life still mattered. Why? Because they were woven into the larger universe of the show, and their actions affected other events in ways that felt unpredictable and revealing. In Ray Donovan, the kids exist only to get into trouble and make their father react in anger. It’s only been six episodes, and already it feels like a trite formula.
Luckily, the kids don’t take up that much time. Not so for Bunchy, Ray’s brother who suffered molestation at the hands of a priest as a kid, won a huge settlement from the Catholic Church and is now screwing up his life by drinking, buying shitty houses and setting things on fire. His housewarming party is the thread loosely connecting the episode, and the trouble here is that pedophilia in the church is such a serious issue that it demands a thorough, knowledgeable treatment it just isn’t getting from the Donovan writers. Bunchy exists in a strange child-like state, but as I’ve said before, it feels more like bad acting and trite lines than a real psychological examination of what sexual abuse does to its victims. Dash Mihok stumbles around wearing a pout most of the time, and then suddenly erupts into weird bouts of self-pity and rage. Last night, he set fire to a Boston Red Sox pennant after failing to shake off his demons and have sex with a prostitute at the party, and that set off a chain of events that saw Ray racing to the scene to recover his kids (they drove there on a whim, for reasons that obviously aid the plot but never really made sense in the moment) and hit his father in the head with a gun.
And that’s part of the problem; the way Bunchy and the others are used to show Ray’s temperament and initiate conflicts between Ray and Mickey is too transparent. Character development requires subtlety, and here we’re being smashed over the head with a mallet. Family screws up! Mickey does something awful! Ray races to the scene! Fight! It gets old, fast.
And it doesn’t work much better when the story is disconnected from the Ray-and-Mickey saga. Ray’s other brother, Teddy, is in a relationship with a woman who turns out to be married. This is the definition of being backed into a narrative corner; the story has never been affecting, but it’s not like it can be ignored now, and so we waste valuable minutes watching him stare in heartache as this odd woman leads him on while her husband and kids wait at home.
Then there’s Ray’s wife, Bad Boston Accent. I think she has another name, but that’s really all that matters. Last night, helping Bunchy with his new place and keeping secrets from Ray, she remained one of those mysterious, aggravating TV wives who exist only to sow discord with the main character. Boring.
So here we are, nearly halfway through the first season, and the problems that revealed themselves in the pilot episode remain unsolved and unabated. We wrote off the possibility of greatness long ago, but it wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t give the show credit for a slight rebound in the past two weeks. I legitimately want to know how the FBI plot will develop, and I plan to watch at least one more episode to see if the show’s focus begins to settle more squarely on the aspects that really work. At this stage, it’s not quite a guilty pleasure, because I don’t feel very guilty and there’s not much pleasure, but at least we’ve reached a stage where the good shares equal footing with the bad. That’s enough to get me to the next episode, but what happens from there is anyone’s guess.