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Sunday Night's Other Great Drama Wraps Up First Season
September 21, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment
 

Trotting out TV's latest antihero, Showtimes's Ray Donovan has been a dark and often riotous look at brawn and brains in LA.

The series, which wraps up its first season Sunday night at 10 ET, has had the slight misfortune of running the same night as AMC's Breaking Bad, which has stolen most of the attention and the electronic water cooler conversation.

But for storytelling and noir-ish good looks, this series, starring Liev Schreiber (top) as the taciturn tough guy who can fix any problem for LA's elite and powerful, has been every bit as riveting as its Sunday night rival. And it may even exceed its distant HBO cousin, The Sopranos, simply because Ray's not strictly a hood, and has a more relatable moral base – although it's a deeply marginalized and conflicted one.

We might someday look at what shows like The Sopranos and Oz wrought, and look back at our time as television's Golden Age of the Antihero. Scrolling through characters like Tony, Jackie Peyton, Don Draper, and, of course, Walter White, we've learned one thing as an audience: there are many shades of gray when it comes to bad behavior and its origins.

Dostoyevsky was perhaps first to the punch, giving us Raskolnikov in his 19th century novel Crime and Punishment, taking five hundred pages to excavate the whole psychological study of the unwitting murderer. And that's worth noting, because our current antiheroes, like Ray, are getting similar novel-like examination when it comes to painting a portrait of guys straddling society's lines.

That's good for viewers, because, in a sense, we are watching ourselves. Each of us is as deeply confounded in our motivations and desires. We might not be taking a baseball bat to our enemies like Ray, but we all simultaneously inhabit vulnerability and harshness, as does Ray. He's a family man, a breadwinner, a clever adversary – and a bully – identifiable in virtually all aspects of his sturggle to cope.

That Ray Donovan has been so gripping is no surprise, conceived and produced as it has by Ann Biderman. Biderman, you might know, ran Southland, which signed off this year after five seasons. Southland had a small but fervent audience (including some of us at TVWW). It had one of the more stellar casts on television, and Biderman has accomplished similar heights here with Schreiber and Paula Malcomson (left) as his suffering wife Abby. She's a former South Boston girl, a stay-at-home mom, but frustrated beyond rational behavior as Ray keep's his work completely secret from her. She has a privileged California life after escaping Southie with Ray, but has no idea where the money really comes from. Or what Ray really has to do in order to get it.

The townie South Boston connections – the accents, Donovan brother Terry's (Eddie Marsan) boxing gym – have been some of the better colorings of the series, although initially, all that seemed somewhat out of place for a story set in sunny L.A.

That's evolved throughout the course of Season 1, and Biderman's concoction of Boston Irish street smarts and the crush of L.A. celebrity (and the media spotlight that Ray tries to keep his clients out of) has proved to be a unique blend of oddball parts, assembled into a hybrid brand of modern drama all its own.

After all, Boston mobster Whitey Bulger (and model for the James Woods' character of Sully) hid out in the sunshine of Santa Monica, living like a retiree in plain sight for almost 15 years before being apprehended, so the setup is an established one.

The series' success is also due, in large part, to the casting of Jon Voight as Ray's ex-con meddling father, Mickey. (Left, with Devon Bagby as Ray's son, Conner). He's also a Bulger-type thug with a string of bodies behind him. Ray's got a huge case of patricide brewing for Mickey, and was partly responsible for landing his sketchy dad in prison for 20 years. There's a terrible family secret still buried there between them that will likely come out in the season finale,  explaining Ray's hatred of his father and his recent attempt to put out a hit on him.

As sociopathic a character as Mickey is, Voight has brought a high comic streak that's thrust the series along, such as the night Mickey does Ecstasy and kicks it up in a gay disco. It's hard to imagine the series maintaining its surprise pace without Mickey crossing things up as he has.

In Biderman's hands, the "conflicted tough-guy with a heart" saga has been exquisitely woven. She's also been capable of making some signature moments in television, as she did on Southland. On Ray Donovan, in episode six, "Housewarming," Biderman gave us the perhaps the trippiest, most hilarious episode of any series this year. Ray tries to discredit FBI agent Van Miller (Frank Whaley) and get him off his trail. (Miller has Mickey informing for the FBI, in another nod to the Whitey Bulger story.) 


One of Ray's operatives slips Miller a hallucinogenic, and later, the affected, oddball agent sees his action-figure collection come alive in one scene. In another – worthy of a David Lynch stroke in Twin Peaks – Miller washes his hands in an FBI men's room when one stall opens and a Capuchin monkey walks out. In a suit.

TVWW obviously has a thing for well-placed comic monkeys, it's true. But it's also been a credit to the structure and timing of Ray Donovan – a tough-guy premise steeped in noir, but well-stirred for modern times – that such scenes can seem hilarious yet organic at the same time.
 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Keith Robin
Definitely one of my new favorites!
Sep 21, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
 
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