Ray Donovan is our working-class James Bond, all crisp shirts and well-tailored suits, straight whiskey and a baseball bat. However, the premiere of “Ray Donovan” Season 6 suggests a series well into its decline, one that transfers our antihero from Los Angeles to New York in an effort to reinvigorate the show’s scrappy energy.
While it’s risky to judge a season by the single episode available for review, the disappointment here is familiar. The herky-jerky flashback storyline that defined Season 5 was a clumsy mess that suggested the writers’ room relocated to an ayahuasca retreat. Those conceits have gratefully vanished, but now we’re left with Ray as a depressive thug who’s swapped his style for a baggy flannel shirt and a well-worn Yankees cap. And where’s the fun in that?
The last time we saw Ray, he followed the ghost of his beloved wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) off the roof of a 10-story building, straight into the East River. When the episode opens, cop Sean McGrath (Domenick Lombardozzi from “The Wire,” always good to see) witnesses the fall, and drops his arrest of drug dealer Fetu Autufuga (Kelemete Misipeka) to jump in the water. Naturally, Ray responds to this heroism by attempting to punch the guy out, and finds himself joining Fetu in the back seat.
Dazed and bloody, he’s sprung from jail by studio head Samantha Winslow (Susan Sarandon), who established their hired-gun relationship in Season 5. She has another job, but he says he’s done and heads to a bar. Shortly after, Sean walks in the door and asks to drink with him. Ray obliges, but they’re interrupted by the cop’s estranged wife, furious that he’s drinking rather than picking up their son from school.
There’s more, of course, but much of it feels not just implausible but uninteresting. It’s clear that Ray and Sean are forming some kind of toxic partnership, and Samantha does pull in Ray for another job; this one involves her friend Anita Novak (Lola Glaudini), a mayoral candidate with a thing for anonymous sex. But it all feels rote, even dreary — and watching star Liev Schreiber mope around looking like a bearded, schlubby Sabretooth doesn’t help.
It’s more than likely Ray will shave, and get his suits and baseball bat shipped from LA — the season’s trailer says as much — but that may not be enough. He needs a new sense of purpose: No matter where he is, or what he’s wearing, he no longer has Abby and that’s a little like Jim Rockford without his truck-driver dad, or “Magnum, P.I.” minus snooty caretaker Jonathan Quayle Higgins III. Without their ballast, these characters lose their mythos and slide into self-appointed loose-cannon vigilantes. They become assholes.
Ray was a terrible husband and father, but he wanted his family — and so his audience wanted that for him. Now his wife is dead, his kids are estranged (son Conor didn’t rate so much as a mention), and the show checks in with his three brothers long enough to see them putzing around their sad little worlds. Although it’s likely that Ray’s dad (Jon Voight) will soon be out of jail, he’s more albatross than anchor.
Even with Ann Biederman as its creator, women don’t have a lot of agency on “Ray Donovan” — and that’s also a bad move for the men. Equality concerns aside, treating women as props rather than pillars does tend to undermine the gravity of their own stories. Shortly after wrestler Teresa (Alyssa Diaz) married Bunchy Donovan (Dash Mihok), she found herself put on a bus for six weeks and the relationship dissolved upon her return. Cop Maureen Dougherty (Tara Buck) got into a snit right before her wedding to Terry Donovan (Eddie Marsan), married him anyway, and promptly disappeared, presumably suffering from the world’s longest case of the silent treatment. Beautiful women seeking Ray’s protection are just as likely to be killed off in some horrible fashion.
Except for Abby. She received a more-dignified farewell with a full season of cancer, but Ray needed Abby more than she needed him and “Ray Donovan” needed her more than it realized. Without her, and the yearning for connection she represented, he’s just an alcoholic hitman from Boston. We may get back an approximation of the Ray we love — mean, well-dressed, slightly drunk, solving problems — but for now there’s nothing at stake and it’s difficult to see what could fill that gap, since he’s proven himself spectacularly bad in all relationships.
While Ray Donovan is a complex character with his backstory of sexual abuse, a monstrous father, and enough family tragedy to make Shakespeare blush, over time “Ray Donovan” has proven that it’s not a particularly complex show — and that’s fine. It’s not “Breaking Bad,” or “The Wire;” it’s a premium soap opera that finds much of its charm in watching Schreiber beat the shit out of high-powered villains and bullies like the dark, blue-collar Superman that he is (albeit one with excellent taste in watches). Last season was a deeply flawed attempt to pretend it was something more profound, and now we have Ray lost in New York. Here’s hoping he finds his way, and that the producers figure out how to live and let Liev.
“Ray Donovan” premieres on Showtime October 28 at 9pm ET/PT.
Correction: Susan Sarandon portrays Samantha Winslow; an earlier version listed her as Samantha Matheson.