Welcome to the crazy, fast-paced world of the one and only Ray Donovan. This is normally where I’d insert the classic “Ray is this guy by day, but this guy by night”, but to be honest he really just does it all, all the time. His legitimate job is that of a Hollywood Mr. Fix-it, helping a talent management agency handle its eccentric clients. He also dabbles in a laundry list of various criminal activities that are just too numerous to count. And then there’s his family, from his freshly released ex-con father, to his three brothers, to his wife and two children. Needless to say Ray is a busy man, so how does he keep up with it all, and is watching it all play out worth your while? Ray Donovan is a show in which a lot of thing happen, but only a few actually mean anything. We start the season seeing Ray (Liev Schreiber) as a guy who spend his days driving from place to place, cleaning up the messes that various celebrities create as they tear through life without a thought towards the consequences. Taking care of a football pro with a “lady for hire” or a movie star with a bad drug habit. We also see Ray dealing with arguably more trivial issues like getting his kids into private school. But oddly, after about three episodes, these story threads just vanish (save a small reoccurrence from Austin Nichols as Tommy Wheeler, the previously mentioned movie star) . If these stories were not introduced in to first place, I doubt I’d be sitting here writing about how I wish Ray would get more involved in his children’s schooling. But because we get that glimpse, and because it turns out it’s really interesting to see a man as completely stone-faced as Ray deal with these more basic issues, I constantly noticed that these stories were missing from the show entirely. That’s not to say that where the show ends up after it takes its minor course correction is bad, in fact I liked it quite a bit, I just never stopped wondering where that part of Ray went to, and it saddened me.
So where does Ray Donovan end up? Well in the interest of keeping this review spoiler free, as we’re apt to do here at Free For All, I’ll be as vague as possible. The story basically escalates very quickly when in the pilot episode, Ray’s dad Mikey Donovan (Jon Voight) is released from a twenty year stay in prison and gets to work right away being an all around bad dude and even worse influence. He returns home to the family boxing gym to be reunited with Ray and his other three sons. Terry (Eddie Marsan) is the nice guy of the bunch and suffers from a bad case a Parkinson’s; Bunchy (Dash Mihok) is the proverbial screw up and awkward one; and Daryll (Pooch Hall) is the long-lost half-brother from Mickey’s fling with a woman just before Ray’s mother passed away. Together these five make up a dysfunctional family the likes of which you’ve never seen before.
Ray also has a completely different family, one that Mickey hasn’t had much of anything to do with since being incarcerated. You have the lovely Mrs. Abby Donovan (Paula Malcomson), who’s accent and attitude are both straight out of Boston, and Ray’s two teenage kids, Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and Conor (Devon Bagby). They also give new meaning to the term dysfunctional, but admittedly in a less severe and more traditional way than the relationship you see between the Donovan brothers and their father. Lastly you have Ray’s work family. Two of my favorite characters on the show are Avi (Steven Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moennig), Ray’s trusted team and partners in crime for everything from kidnapping and extortion to picking up the kids from school. And then there’s Ezra (Elliott Gould), Ray’s lawyer and somewhat of a father figure, as it turns out Mick is not the best of role models for a boy growing up. Shocked? I know I am! And so Ray lets us join him, week after week, has he spends every waking moment bouncing between these three sets of family, trying his best to keep them from intertwining, trying to get everyone else to realize his father can’t be trusted, and just generally trying to make sure that no one winds up dead… unless of course he plans it.
While I had my issues with the direction of the first season, I did love the smaller stories told within the larger, slightly more flawed narrative. But even more than that I loved the performances that brought these characters to life. The star of the show is of course Schreiber. He doesn’t blink for a single second as he plays one of the most composed, logical, and stone-cold lead men I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. You come to believe there is simply nothing that you could through at him and have him flinch as a result. It’s both impressive, and sometimes just a bit unnerving. Malcomson is also wonderful as Abby. I’ve heard some folks complain about her accent, but considering that for one she’s going from her native and very thick Irish to a Bostonian sound, and that it’s done rather well in my opinion, it’s quite impressive. She also plays the “out of the loop” house wife better than most recent iterations of the character such as Morena Baccarin form Homeland or Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad. And speaking of women on Ray’s life, let me not forget the young and incredibly talented Dorsey. She walks the line perfectly between innocent daddy’s girl and a teenager who can’t wait to grow up. She even get’s her own dedicated episode, and it is one of my top three favorites of this initial twelve episode run.
Voight makes a stunning appearance as well, playing just the right mix of screwed up anti-socialite and complete and utter scumbag. I just sort of felt icky watching him. But then he’d crack a line that he seemed to think was completely normal, but in fact was completely inappropriate, and I’d find my cracking up at the wonderfully written and expertly delivered comedic moments. And the last stand out performance in my humble opinion was that of Bauer. Avi is one of those characters who is every episode of the season, and yet I often found myself wishing he was around more every week. He is completely loyal to Ray and yet can take care of himself in just about any situation, and I can’t think of a more perfect casting choice than Bauer for this role. Final Thoughts Ray Donovan can be a little too hot and cold for my taste at times, with certain characters and story threads going away either too quickly, or just disappearing all together. Episodes like New Birthday where the show just feels different in its general tone, or with characters like Peter Jacobson‘s Lee Drexler never being heard from again after the third episode. But all together the acting is solid, the relationship the characters build are genuine and fun to watch grow, and most importantly, the season finale, though maybe a little too clean in its wrap up, sets us up for some really interesting things. If you have access to Showtime programming and your plate’s not overflowing, take the time to check out Ray. I think it’s certainly worth it before we see what I hope will be a more focused story in season two.