The terrific new series “Ray Donovan” debuted on Showtime Sunday night to record ratings for an original series premiere on the network. Nielsen estimates that “Ray Donovan” averaged 1.35 million viewers in its 9 p.m. timeslot, reports Variety, some 25% more than the premiere of “Homeland” in 2011. Looks like letting viewers sample the pilot online was a smart move.
If the show fulfills the promise of its pilot episode it could turn out to be one of the great ones, an ideal anecdote for those of us who expect to be suffering from “Breaking Bad” withdrawal in a few months.
Its credential could scarcely be more promising: Writer-creator Ann Biderman (“Southland”) and founding director Allen Coulter (“House of Cards”) are top drawer television drama veterans. Still, a couple of the early reviews have been truly clueless, knocking the show for getting the details wrong in its portrait of the title character, a ruthless and amoral Hollywood fixer, played by Liev Schreiber with the most charismatic barely-audible growl this side of the all time grandmaster of the form, Clint Eastwood.
To our great relief, “Ray Donovan” turns out to be nothing at all like “Entourage” and way more like “Get Shorty,” in which a gangster comes to Hollywood and fits right in. A grimmer, grislier “Get Shorty,” we should add, without the leavening of Elmore Leonard’s dry humor. The show’s view of Tinseltown, in fact, may be the darkest we’ve seen on a screen of any size since the Los Angeles sections of “The Godfather.”
The show has a what-if premise about a clan of violent thugs from South Boston, complete with deep-dish “Fighter” accents, transplanted to LA and finding a niche ready made for them. The best accent of the bunch is fielded by the wonderful Paula Malcomson, of many fond “Deadwood” memories, as Ray’s long-suffering wife.
Schreiber’s senior brother Ray is the tough guy who has been holding the family together for decades, by any means necessary. Like the classic gangster figures, from M. Corleone to T. Soprano, he’s the one who is “strong for the family.” Outwardly a model of focus and control, he also has violent, anarchic impulses for which his dirty work getting Hollywood slimeballs out of trouble provides, on occasion, an outlet.
When Ray snaps a slimy executive’s fingers against a pool table, or goes after the stalker of a frightened pop star with a baseball bat, Ray is obviously going well beyond what’s needed to “fix” the given situation.
One of the three Donovan brothers, Eddie Marson’s soulful Terry, is, in fact, a fighter, now running a seedy training gym, a has-been pugilist brain-damaged into a form of Parkinsons. So far younger brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok), seems to be the weakest link, an agitated addict, whose problems seem to have begun years ago when he was molested by a priest, a hackneyed bit of backstory, especially for a drama centering on Boston Irish Catholics.
Force of habit, you could say, and the key event of the first episode is the arrival in LA, fresh from Walpole, of the family’s heart of darkness in human form, Ray’s nemesis and father Mickey, played with magnificent malignancy by Jon Voigt. (One of his first acts after he hits town is to give Bunchy some drugs, looking on with paternal affection as his youngest snorts up. This monster down in the middle of West Hollywood is, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, “about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”