Episode 1: The Bag or the Bat
By: Carlos Uribe
Ray Donovan is a show about a “fixer” for rich people having to deal with his family life.
Scandal is a show about a group of lawyers who use their skills to help their clients navigate through crises. The central figure, Olivia Pope, is stuck in a love triangle with a President because she can't control her emotions around him. She can't handle her own crisis in her love life even as he handles the crises of the people who pay her. House of Lies is a show about management consultants, who are usually brought on board to solve issues their business clients are facing. The central figure is Martin Kean, whose own life is hardly put together. ABC is preparing a show called Mind Games about a firm who uses the science of manipulation to solve the issues of their clients. The two brothers running this firm are flawed in their own ways: one of them is bipolar while the other is a convict. This new show, Ray Donovan, is a show about someone who makes the problems of the wealthy in Beverly Hills go away. He fixes their problems for a fee. It comes as no surprise that he is a complicated figure who can't keep it in his pants and whose family members are clearly broken. I guess it makes sense that this new sub-genre of crisis management shows have a central figure who can't control their own life. There's a sense of irony there that is too delicious to ignore. It's also what helps tie the drama from one episode to the next as the characters deal with their weekly crisis. This leaves room for serialization in what could easily be a procedural. So the question is if this latest entry to the new crisis management sub-genre is any good or not. Is it as good as what is currently the top of the small sub-genre (Scandal) or it as troubled as the worst the genre has to offer (House of Lies)? It is it in the middle? All I can say is that Scandal has nothing to worry about. Ray Donovan isn't as bad as House of Lies but it's sure boring.
Ray Donovan actually plants a lot of interesting seeds that should make this more of an interesting show than it is. There is the former mobster who just got out of a long prison sentence. He's re-entering a world that has changed since he left it. His relationship with his son, Ray Donovan, is strained. There is the brother who has Parkinson disease and who holds on to his glory days of being a boxer. His other brother is an alcoholic who continues to deal with the abuse of being raped by the family priest. Ray's relationship with his wife is strained as he keeps stepping out on her. All of these elements should spell a lot of compelling content for the series to explore. The problem? I'd say that the pacing, tone, and just overall execution of Ray Donovan stops any of these from really being interesting. The actual case of the week is so muddled in how it's written and directed that it sort of falls apart. It's disappointing but the whole of the pilot of Ray Donovan simply suggests a show that's covering a lot of material but that there isn't going to be a strong coherent whole that ties it all together. It's all too boring and the pilot lags at many parts. It's a chore to get through all 58 minutes. It's possible for future episodes to improve but I'm not inclined to check back on this show. I simply wasn't hooked and the curiosity I had in most of the plots largely evaporated as the pilot churned along. Sometimes a shorter episode is actually better as the restraint leads to a tighter narrative. A lot of people complain that in network television you can't let a moment breathe: I think Ray Donovan proves that's not always necessary a bad thing. Sometimes you can let a moment breathe for too long.
The most frustrating part about Ray Donovan is the main character. There's a part in the pilot where one of the clients basically states he likes Ray because of the mystery in the character. I'd say that's a huge problem: Ray is a mystery. He's a mystery from the beginning of the pilot to the end. Now there is nothing wrong with a little mystery but that seems to be all there is to Ray. He sleeps with that singer for seemingly no real reason other than her insistence that he's into her. It honestly feels like the writer has no real handle on the character and is having him act based on what the writer feels will build a complex character without actually having any complexity to a character. At the end of the episode, I didn't feel like Ray Donovan was a complex, compelling character that I wanted to figure out. He's simply someone who probably slept with the singer because this is Showtime and that's what protagonists on Showtime shows do: sleep around. I'm guessing future episodes are going to actually have to develop the character and give him reasons for why he does what he does. They might not explain the latter but that's okay as long as they exist. At this current stage, I'm simply not convinced they do. As a note, Liev Schreiber does a great job in giving Ray the alpha wolf personality that the character should have. You are convinced that he's able to solve these issues in the way that he does. It's just a pity that the writing isn't there to actually have a character for the actor. He's simply a well-acted shell at the moment.
As for the side characters, there's quite a bit of them. Ray is married to Abby and here I have a small complaint. It's a nice tough to give Abby an accent as she's from South Boston (or New Jersey). It makes sense that she would have such an accent. The problem? The whole family is from South Boston but she's the only one who has an accent. Her husband, kids, and the family she married into all speak without an accent. What? It's just a bit odd and distracting that while everyone around her is speaking normally, she employs a heavy accent. It's worse that it can be difficult to understand what she's saying at key points of the pilot. I've had to backtrack a few moments to get what she was saying. The character is largely just there to complain about her life or something. They have two kids but their largely there in the background, more talked about than anything. One of the brothers, Terry, is defined mostly by having Parkinsons and his boxing past. The other brother, Bunchy, was abused by a priest and is an alcoholic. He has a half-brother he learns about in the pilot, Daryll, but that's all we learn about him. I'd say that the pilot had only one miscast character and that was Bunchy. Dash Mihok simply doesn't seem at home with the role. Ray's right-hand man is Avi but that's as far as his character is developed. Same with Lena, the press agent. The father, Mickey, is largely defined by his past and going crazy with the drugs and sex. He has two bosses that made more of an impression but their only recurring.
Ray Donovan is a show that fans of the sub-genre might want to check out but I find it hard to actually recommend this show based on the pilot. It's slow-pacing and execution simply means that none of the interesting elements really come together. The titular protagonist, Ray Donovan, isn't compelling because he's too weakly written to really come together. A large problem, I think, comes down to focus: is this a show about Ray's work life or personal life? What is this show about thematically? The pilot contains no answer to this question. Ray Donovan is the next big show by Showtime but it ultimately doesn't come together to form a cohesive whole. It might improve by the end of the season but it's currently not a very good show.