Los Angeles is such an easy and often undefended target for broad satire that it can be perversely difficult to portray in fiction, getting lost in stereotypes of image obsession, inescapable show business involvements, eternal traffic and compulsive fixations on healthy living. Despite (or because of?) so many of the creative forces in film and TV being based in the area, on screen it’s as frequently made to look like a place people endure as one in which they actually live, which hardly seems fair for a diverse, sprawling city of nearly four million that has a lot more to it than carfuls of aspiring model-actresses doing keybumps for dinner before heading into a nightclub.
“Ray Donovan,” the new Showtime drama premiering this Sunday, June 30 at 10pm, is set in a lustrous, nasty Hollywood world packed with pretty faces and toxic personalities, but the shots it takes aren’t cheap. They’re not even really shots — “Ray Donovan” is the creation of Ann Biderman, whose recently canceled drama “Southland” was notable for its nuanced portrayal of L.A. cops and criminals, and it surveys the behavior of the studio bigwigs, actors, athletes and musicians who lurch into its focus with the impassivity of its titular protagonist, played by Liev Schreiber. They’re not straw men (and women), they’re just brisk realizations of the types of personalities these industries tend to create or demand — they require a lot of cleaning up after, which is where Ray comes in.
Ray is a transplant, a curt Southie boy who left a dark past behind in Boston and brought his family to California, where he’s traded up for expensive suits and a business as an Olivia Pope-style fixer for the rich and famous, without any of the “Scandal” heroine’s high moral protestations. The first client we see him handle is a pro-baller who wakes up in bed to find the girl he picked up the night before died of an cocaine overdose during the night. “My dick is covered in blood!” he wails on the phone to an unimpressed Ray, who demands the guy check for a pulse before working to come up with a mutually beneficial solution involving another actor client who could use a scandal involving being caught in hotel room with a female, alive or otherwise. Ray has a dedicated team that includes Lena (“The L Word” favorite Katherine Moennig), who handles the public side of the business, and the Israeli Avi (Steven Bauer, “Scarface”), who serves as muscle when Ray isn’t picking up a baseball bat himself.
“Ray Donovan” feels very busy, especially in the Allen Coulter-directed pilot, which introduces a whirlwind of characters and their attached dramas in a way that could have been unpacked to fill the good part of a season. While the tauter half the show is about Ray’s business, the other and far more scattershot portion, at least in the first four episodes, is about his family and their reaction to the release of his boisterous, sinister father Mickey (Jon Voight) from prison after a 20-year stint.
Ray and his dad have some bad blood between them, but his brothers Bunchy (Dash Mihok) and Terry (Eddie Marsan) are more eager to reconnect, while his wife Abby (Paula Malcomson, so great on “Deadwood,” but stuck in a more thankless, shrewish role here, complaining about living in Calabasas and getting the kids into private school) can’t understand why her husband wants nothing to do with his returned parent. Ray isn’t one for talking — and the show’s interesting in suggesting that he, by not really trying, blends more easily into the L.A. upper crust than his class-climbing spouse — but unlike Walter White or Tony Soprano, Ray doesn’t seem to have a good reason not to open up to his wife about whatever secret history he’s harboring.
Ray is a nice fit for Schreiber, who puts his size and solid, slightly road-worn presence to good use — Ray comes across as competent and trustworthy while also being the right kind of shady for the job. And it’s definitely when he’s working that he and the series are at their best — watching these early episodes, it’s easy to want to know more about how the business operates, about Ray’s employees and his mentor Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) and his law partner Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson) than about what Voight’s character may or may not be up to.
The highlight of the pilot involves Ray’s interactions with a former child star turned aspiring singer named Ashley Prescott (Ambyr Childers) that he’s hired to spy on by her married lover Stu Feldman (Josh Pais). A beautiful bundle of craziness, Ashley uses real and calculated vulnerability with lazer precision to get a rise out of Ray — “What the fuck am I doing? Why am I seeing Stu?” she sighs. “He’s a terrible person… God, I’m so fucked up.”
And while she might mean it, she’s also cannier about her own power than the line indicates, and just as likely someone you’d need rescue from as someone in search of a rescuer. It’s the kind of writing that suggests that “Ray Donovan,” should it balance out its undeniable overload of interesting but jumbled elements, could be a truly smart take on dark underbelly of L.A.’s teeming central industry without resorting to lazy, imprecise cynicism that can color fellow Showtime series “Californication.” Ray, unlike Hank Moody, actually wants the life he’s carved out for himself in California. After all, it’s where he lives.