I assume anyone reading this has watched more of Ray Donovan than I have, so I’ll keep the recap brief: this show concerns a Hollywood fixer/hitman/thug for hire whose professional and personal relationships begin strained and spend the next however many episodes tugging yet further, so long as the constituent atoms roughly hold together.
Ray Donovan has been recommended to me by a few people, and quite highly. I struggle to see why. Sure, I have monstered through two seasons in the week or so between losing my job and writing this. Let’s compare the show to a proper great, like Breaking Bad or The Wire.
Those AMC and HBO classics were binge-worthy because they were impeccably well-written and paced, with a perfect level of peril to make the viewer wonder if their favourite character would even get through the next scrape. They are like a filet mignon burger: hearty, beautifully prepared and actually pretty good for you when consumed in the serving size you get delivered.
Ray Donovan is a bag of Haribo. Sour Haribo at that. Not at all good for you, but sugary and addictive enough so you can polish off a bag in one sitting. You’re left feeling a bit sick, with a dodgy taste in your mouth outweighed only by the sensation of guilt that has overcome you.
Ostensibly, this is a West Coast Sopranos. The titular Ray (Liev Schreiber) is your Tony; patriarch of a two-child family. Wife kinda knows that he makes his money either ruining or ending other people’s lives, but the gilded cage he keeps her in is just about enough for them to stay together. Kids as they grow up gradually learn what dad is about. As Tony has Uncle Junior to contend with as alpha male, Ray has Mickey (Jon Voight) who has emerged from prison at the outset of the series. The equivalents of Tony’s crew are Ray’s brothers; Bada Bing is replaced by the Fite Club; instead of the FBI, Ray has to contend with, well, the FBI.
…it’s like playing a video game on God Mode.
But where Tony Soprano’s bully was at least nuanced, complex and introspective with major weaknesses that allowed us to – if not empathise – at least feel for him, Ray is a flat-track bully more in the mould of Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills from the Taken films: wins any fight, knows how to get out of any jam, always has more dirt on his enemies than they have on him. In short, it’s like playing a video game on God Mode. Any sense of tension or peril is replaced by macho “thrills” and a perverse desire to see what tabloid drama unfolds next.
Maybe I’m a bit slow, but I don’t even know what his business is. Tony is a mobster in the classic Italian American organised crime sense that we are familiar with from cinema. Ray is an employee of a very wealthy man (Ezra, played by Elliott Gould) whose organisation seems to be above board, but apparently only concerns itself with espionage and murder. They have higher visibility than the gangsters whose actual business is waste disposal, but I don’t know what their public face is supposed to be. They’re hiding in plain sight? The premise leaves me cold.
…surely Tony Soprano is the best-acted role in TV history…
There are silver linings. As well as the aforementioned car crash aspect, whereby you just can’t look away, and have to see what grisly details emerge next, the cast is very strong. Schreiber does what he’s told to a very high standard, much like the character he’s playing. He’s in shape, he smoulders through most of the scenes, carries a similar sense of menace to James Gandolfini’s Soprano, but replaces Gandolfini’s range (come on, surely Tony Soprano is the best-acted role in TV history) with… he sort of clenches his jaw like an Eastenders villain whenever nonplussed about something.
Jon Voight is insanely good as the tough one minute, coward the next Mickey. Eddie Marsan, as brother Terry is fantastic, as he seemingly always is. Paula Malcomson, playing Ray’s put-upon wife, is a great successor to Edie Falco. We even get Wendell Pierce and Hank Azaria, both better known from infinitely better shows. And that’s not even mentioning the rogues gallery of clients, adversaries and hangers-on.
I was tempted to watch some more (there are, what, seven seasons?), but I think I need a palate cleanser. Ray Donovan is entertaining enough, but ultimately I feel I’m wasting my time with a drama that is sorely lacking any actual drama.