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‘Ray Donovan’ Returns as One of the Small Screen’s Smartest, Sharpest, Most Satisfying Dramas
June 24, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

Ray Donovan isn’t just any detective drama. Los Angeles may be the most filmed city on the planet, and yet Donovan’s deft use of shadows and light makes the familiar look like no place on Earth. Ray Donovan is contemporary noir, Chinatown updated for modern times, the Hollywood dream factory shot through a filter of cynicism and nervous anxiety.

It is also one of the most absorbing, hypnotic, compelling dramas on the small screen today.

Ray Donovan is television, but it looks and feels so much more like cinema — cinema with an edge. Chinatown was made in the early 1970s and set in the ‘20s, when Orange County was just that, a county of orange groves, and water rights were acquired through, in the words of historian and writer Marc Reisner, “chicanery, subterfuge and . . . lies.

Chinatown was one of the first films of its era to see evil in bright sunshine, to show how murder-for-hire is just as unsettling when it hides in plain sight. The movies have traditionally played on the idea that anyone with money and power can commit murder in the dark of night and get away with it. Chinatown showed how money and power can get away with murder at any time of day, even in the bright glare of the southern Californian midday sun.

That was then, though, and this is now. Chinatown could only tell so much story in 131 minutes, and it reflected the times it was made in. Ray Donovan opens the door on its fourth season this weekend, with restless fixer Ray Donovan — a thoughtful, deeply layered performance by Liev Schreiber — recovering from a brush with death, trying to repair his shattered family and reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.

Donovan’s ne’er-do-well father Mickey — Jon Voight (below, right), in a tour-de-force performance by an industry veteran who first made his name in the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy — is in hiding in Nevada, with Det. Sheila Muncie (Michael Hyatt) close on his trail.

Mickey is where he can no longer disrupt Ray’s life and ruin his family, but longtime viewers of Ray Donovan know that it’s only a matter of time before the two are drawn together again, like ill-fated players in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Ray’s brittle, fragile wife Abby, played by Paula Malcomson — so good in David Milch’s dyspeptic western Deadwood — is facing existential problems of her own. When the fourth season begins, she gets a dose of personal news she could do without, and her already tenuous grip on sanity is about to be tested to the breaking point. (Showtime’s teaser for the new season featured Delta Rae’s The Bottom of the River on the song track; read into that what you will.*)

Ray Donovan is a master class in cinematography, art direction, music, and sound, but it’s the dramatic tension, the inherent conflict of damaged souls trying to find atonement and absolution that elevates it above the crowd of typical TV detective dramas.

Donovan is haunted by a history of childhood abuse, both to himself and his grown, adult brothers, even as he tries to right the wrongs he sees in the present world. Ray Donovan is nominally a detective drama, but it’s really about dealing with childhood psychic pain as an adult. He’s fighting to keep his family together, not always successfully, but he’s putting up a good fight. Ray Donovan is about complicity, and the choices adults make when faced with existential crises.

Hank Azaria (below, right), who appeared in several seasons as a disgraced FBI Special Agent, told reporters at a recent gathering of the TV Critics Association that no character in Ray Donovan is one thing only. “Almost every character, no matter how big or how small, gets to display that in a variety of ways,” Azaria said. “Everybody in this show is different shades of gray . . . It’s fun peeling back the layers.”

Emmy-nominated Schreiber admitted he’s still getting to know his character, as Ray is still struggling to find his true self. “I think that Ray has a hard time expressing him and being open about his feelings,” Schreiber said. “Everyone else insists on digging up their pain and exercising it. I’m grateful [viewers] pick up on it, because it’s one of the things that I like about this ensemble.”

There was a moment early in last season’s frantic finale Exsuscito — Latin for awakening — where one character turns to another and says, sharply, “You want out? There is no out.”

Thankfully, for those who’ve come to appreciate Ray Donovan over the years, there is no out for the show, either.

Not for another season, anyway.

This is a side of L.A. you won’t see on the maps to the stars’ homes, but it’s a side that’s there for anyone who pries beneath the sunny exterior. Ray Donovan is fiction, but it feels real. It’s cinematic, where so much of what passes on TV seems small. It’s TV, and yet it just might be the most adult, absorbing, thought-provoking movie you will see all summer.

Ray Donovan returns Sunday on Showtime at 9 PM ET.

*Bottom Of The River

Delta Rae


Hold my hand

Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river

Hold my hand,

Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down, a long way down

If you get sleep or if you get none

(The cock’s gonna call in the morning, baby)

Check the cupboard for your daddy’s gun

(Red sun rises like an early warning)

The Lord’s gonna come for your first-born son

(His hair’s on fire and his heart is burning)

Go to the river where the water runs

(Wash him deep where the tides are turning)


And if you fall....

And if you fall....


Hold my hand

Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river

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Chinatown took place in the 30s. Sea Biscuit's exploits are displayed on newspaper Gittes is reading in courtroom scene.
Jun 27, 2016   |  Reply
Gopher1. Did you read the article
Jun 25, 2016   |  Reply
I wanted to like "Ray Donavan." Great cast, compelling storyline and the noir side of LA. Ray the fixer, brothers with abuse issues and a pathological dad. The first season captured all those facets. Then, a showrunner or Showtime decided to decided to really push the wierdness. Abby's character is flakier version of Carmella Soprano, Ray loses all semblanace to his earlier character, Voight takes overacting to new heights as the brothers take underacting to new lows. I defy anyone to cogently explain the show's core concept as it now stands.
Jun 25, 2016   |  Reply
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