Ray Donovan: “The Bag or the Bat”/”A Mouth is a Mouth” (Episodes 1.01/1.02)

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Ray Donovan: “The Bag or the Bat”/”A Mouth is a Mouth” (Episodes 1.01/1.02)

There are enough familiar tropes and archetypes and accents and atmospheres in Showtime’s new drama Ray Donovan that legions of gullible viewers will inevitably be fooled into thinking it’s a good—or possibly great—show. It’s neither, and the fact that the writers have so completely eschewed originality, and executed the plot so poorly, means that the way the show fails is not even interesting. Despite its confusing array of masks, Ray Donovan is mediocrity incarnate. This is the television equivalent of an obese person wearing a t-shirt that says “bodybuilder”—minus the redeeming irony.

Liev Schreiber stars as the title character, a “fixer” who protects Los Angeles celebrities from their own massive fuck-ups. In the pilot, an action movie star is caught in a sexual act with a transsexual and a married football player wakes up in bed next to a dead hooker. Donovan’s solution is to pin the hooker on the movie star to rescue his masculine, heterosexual reputation (she overdosed, so a few weeks of rehab and he’ll be fine), and thereby free the football player from any blame. It’s a sort of novel solution, if a little easy, and it lasts for about the first 10 minutes of an hour-long episode. Schreiber is an interesting actor to evaluate; he certainly does the manly, smoldering stuff well, and his character’s quiet intensity is meant to hint at certain unknowable depths of psychic pain. He’s a chick magnet, but he plays his cards close to the vest. He comes from a lower-class background in South Boston, and his dad was a criminal. He’s capable of extreme violence, but seems to love his family in the broad sense of ruffling a few heads and becoming angry when anybody screws with them.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen some version of the character a thousand times. This was Tony Soprano, and it was Justified’s Raylan Givens, and Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy, and on and on. The difference between those characters—who are fully formed as the morally complex engines of excellent shows—and Donovan is a bit like the difference between a Shakespearean actor playing Macbeth and a sullen child wearing a paper crown hat from Burger King. I don’t think it’s Schreiber’s fault. He does his best, and his presence and voice are commanding. But his motivations are vague, as are his feelings about his job, his family, and the superficial world in which he operates. This is not the sort of ambiguity that draws you in and promises some version of an answer down the road—see Mad Men—but the kind that stems from a lack of perspective and foresight by the writers. This feels less like a lure and more like creative uncertainty.

And while Schreiber gives it his best go, the rest of the cast is chock full of even blander stereotypes. There’s his wife, Abby, played by the Northern Irish actress Paula Malcolmson, whose Boston accent is so loud and absurd that it’s comical. Have you ever been drinking with friends and busted out your best hyperbolic New Englandese, with exaggerated broad A’s and no R’s in sight? Then you have a sense of Malcolmson’s dialectic skill. To make matters worse, she’s another of the show’s boring archetypes—a nagging wife who makes stupid decisions with the apparent motive of making life difficult for her husband, like Breaking Bad’s Skyler White, but whose materialism makes her complicit in the violence and infidelities of her husband, like Carmela Soprano.

Rounding out the cast are two screwed-up brothers, one with Parkinson’s from being punched in a boxing ring too often and one who was molested by a priest as a child in Boston and now struggles with alcoholism (Stereotype Summary: Irish people fight and drink, and most of them are Catholic, which means pedophile priests), a shrill, hyper-aggressive Jewish lawyer who comes off like a bad impression of Entourage’s Ari Gold, two boring kids, a lesbian assistant who exists so that a lesbian is in the cast, a secret black half-brother who exists to be used as a thinly-conceived covert weapon in the Donovan family Cold War, a vaguely Eastern European badass sidekick, and a litany of celebrities and sexual freaks who screw everything up.

Let’s be totally clear: This shit is lazy.

The dialogue is lazy, the acting is mostly lazy, and the plot is lazy. In the pilot, Donovan trails a pop star on behalf of a rich client to find out if she’s sleeping around. Instead, he finds that she has a stalker, warns her, and eventually has to beat the stalker to death with a baseball bat. He also makes out with the pop star just before she has an epileptic seizure, prompting her to become his stalker, prompting histrionics from his wife, prompting the rich client to tell the wife that Donovan is sleeping with the girl, prompting Donovan to break his wrist graphically in the corner pocket of a pool table at a birthday party. Along the way, we’re overloaded with cliched barbs, stoic stand-offs and caricatures trying to convince us they’re human.

Episode Two isn’t much better. After wife Abby makes the ridiculous move of letting Donovan’s father into the home—he’s just out of prison, and Donovan has warned her that he’s evil and will bring harm to the family—she and the kids spend a day in Malibu being charmed by the old man while Donovan pursues a break-in at an actor’s home that was perpetrated by…his father and the secret black step-brother. He also beats up a transsexual trying to blackmail the actor from the first episode just before feeling sympathetic and giving him/her money for a sex change operation that he extorted from the rich client whose wrist he broke an episode earlier. You know how the disparate plot points of certain shows fall together perfectly like an intricate puzzle at the end of an hour? Ray Donovan jams them together, without regard to fit or coherence, creating a misshapen cardboard disaster.

There’s one actor I haven’t mentioned. He plays Mickey Donovan, Ray’s father, and he’s somebody we hear about today mostly for his conservative politics or for being Angelina Jolie’s father. But we shouldn’t forget that Jon Voight is one of the great actors of a previous generation, and the transcendent star of classic films like Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home. Here, he’s dealing with the same subpar material as everyone else, but he comes closer than anyone to finding the alchemy to make it compelling. Everything is a little better when he’s on screen, and the best way I can explain it is that while Schreiber stares and grimaces, Voight is electric. This is not merely the shadow of a legend, but the thing itself, filling up the camera with the elemental volatility that marks a genius.

But his performance alone isn’t remotely enough to recommend the show. They say there’s nothing new under the sun, but while Ray Donovan suffers from unoriginality, it fails because it is not authentic. With great execution, even retreads can reach stirring heights. But when you combine old ideas with writing that can only find momentum in predictability and stereotype, it diminishes itself from the very beginning. With such a profound false start, it’s hard to imagine how the show about a fixer can ever fix itself.

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