Showtime’s ‘Ray Donovan’

Parsing Ray Donovan

Ray Donovan is what is known as a hard guy. The son of a professional bank robber from Boston’s notorious Southie section, he went west and became a fixer/bagman for movie/music people in Los Angeles. He’s really good at it: if you’re a black rapper and wake up next to a dead white girl, call Ray Donovan. Don’t worry, he tells you, this isn’t his first rodeo with a dead girl in bed.

Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight: Like father, like son?

Ray Donovan is also the name of the Showtime series with Liev Schreiber in the title role. His Donovan is a close-cropped, stubble-bearded man of few words whose main weapon in his endless trek through the debris of his life is an ever-present smartphone. His words come hard, like chips off granite, pointed and direct. He’s a grim Gary Cooper in an Armani jacket and jeans.  

Ray Donovan is Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust brought up to date, an ongoing examination and indictment of the sad, ruthless culture that is today’s showbiz Los Angeles. It’s — charitably put — crabs not letting each other out of the basket. Moviemakers, musicians, even the FBI, are all in a delirious scramble to the top, although the top seems to be oblivion in this series’ telling.

There are traces of The Sopranos in Ray Donovan: Club Bada-Bing is now a boxing gym run by Ray’s two barely functional brothers, one of whom, like Ray himself, is the survivor of priestly sexual abuse. The boxing club is also a money laundry for Ray’s shady gains.

A good family man

Ray, like Tony Soprano, considers himself a good family man who is only doing what he has to do to keep his family intact and living the good life. Yet there is always the feeling that Ray, like Tony, would be doing this anyhow, family or no, because it’s in his nature; the twig bent in Southie is now the crooked tree in Los Angeles. Having a bank robber as a father and role model is starting way behind the eightball. Ray, a highly intelligent, if thoroughly reticent, man, understands this fact at a deep enough level that he takes the very Southie approach to rectifying his bent childhood by paying James Woods, as Patrick “Sully” Sullivan, $2 million to whack his father, Mickey Donovan, played with showstopping brio by Jon Voight.  

One of the guilty pleasures of watching this series about moral bankruptcy is the star turns of actors like Woods and Voight. Woods’s Sully Sullivan is his take on Whitey Bulger, a real Southie Hall of Famer, and he gets it down all the way to Sully’s another-day-at-the-office strangling of his longtime girlfriend, who has been on the lam with him through thick and thin for almost 20 years. She shouldn’t have mentioned to her mom on the phone the state they were in. She knew that. Gone, baby, gone.

Jon Voight is a true peach as Mickey Donovan. He has the Bah-stan accent down like he was born there, and there is chicanery and bedevilment in his every word and gesture. He can’t help it, but he loves what they call the life, every crooked minute of it. A fresh-faced young movie producer asks him what he did that makes his life story so film-worthy. “I robbed banks and fucked black women,” he replies, and she tells him to do a treatment.

A modern golem

Ray Donovan himself is sort of a golem of 21st-century America, formed from the cultural mud of a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. And, like the golem, monotonic Ray Donovan is relentless in carrying out the bidding of his various masters.

And that’s where the golem becomes human and an actual 21st-century man we can identify with at certain points and whose endless travails are ours magnified to life-and-death dimensions. Simply put, Ray Donovan is an almost monomaniacal multitasker. The sky of the Ray Donovan series is ablaze with arcs, as they say, and Ray is ass-deep in each one, on a virtual treadmill to oblivion.

There is the family arc, which runs into the music and murder arc, the boxing gym arc, the Mickey Donovan heist arc, the self-help guru arc, the FBI arc, the sex with the nosy reporter arc, with new ones shooting off like plot pinwheels just as Ray deals with one of the others. Damn, give the dude a break.

Perhaps that’s why we can put up with the Ray Donovan series and its dramatization of lives that seem to have no real moral bearing, and who seem to be contestants in a rat race; because there is still enough humanity and — yes — beauty in their struggles and decisions that we can still see something of ourselves in them, even through the dark glass of Showtime.

That and Liev Schreiber’s a hell of an actor.

Our readers respond

Linda Dann

of Glassboro, NJ on October 07, 2014

Ingram does a good job of making me want to watch this series, which otherwise may be a little too rough for my tastes. Fanning out to the talents of these actors, the rat race of oblivion, and of course — just recently it has occurred to me: Liev Schreiber is one hell of an actor.

Dinny Zimmerman

of Deering, NH on October 07, 2014

Bob's review brings his characters to life, vivid in a real-life exploration of society's underbelly — a culture deteriorating right before us. Wonderfull stuff!

Susan Schaefer

of Minneapolis, MN on October 08, 2014

Glorious writing on an inglorious subject. Ingram makes me want to swap my PBS bill o’fare for the trenches of torrid debauchery. Thanks for this lively portrait of the seedy side of life. Reminds us that even the saints like a peek through the glass darkly.

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