‘Ray Donovan’: Grimly entertaining

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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(From left) Jon Voight as Mickey Donovan, Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan, Paula Malcomson as Abby Donovan, Dash Mihok as Bunchy Donovan, Eddie Marsan as Terry Donovan and Pooch Hall as Daryll in Ray Donovan on Showtime. (Jeff Riedel/Showtime)

In some respects, Ray Donovan is one of those guys who has come from nothing, finding a great career and a solid home life.

But in other ways, Ray is still nothing.

That’s the core dilemma in Ray Donovan, the drama series premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday (June 30) on Showtime, following the premiere of the last season of Dexter at 9. (An edited-for-content version of the Donovan premiere has been posted early on YouTube and on Showtime’s website and the full premiere is on Showtime On Demand.) Liev Schreiber plays the title character, a fixer for a Los Angeles law firm; if a client is caught up in a scandal, it’s Ray’s job to make it go away — by means that are not always legal.

It’s a difficult job, especially when the clients are scummy, But it has gotten Ray out of South Boston, and made a good home for his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), and their two children in a fancy neighborhood.

But Ray has a more extended family to deal with, including his brothers Terry (Eddie Marsan), a former boxer now dealing with Parkinson’s, and Bunchy (Dash Mihok) who has a severe drinking problem and the lingering effects of childhood abuse by a priest. Then there’s Ray’s father, Mickey (Jon Voight), a former gangster who is just getting out of prison as the series begins. Ray and his brothers also have the grim memories of their sister, who committed suicide while still a teen.

And I have not even gotten to the people Ray works with — among them his Israeli associate Avi (Steven Bauer); another associate, Lena (Katherine Moennig), and Ray’s mentor Ezra (Elliott Gould) — or the clients and others with whom Ray has to do business. It becomes clear rather quickly what a fragile collection of people this is, especially when Mickey starts making trouble.

But the series created by Ann Biderman fits all the pieces together in the first four episodes (which I have seen), juggling intrigue and relationships and that basic question of what sort of life Ray has built. Not only do his father and brothers provide reminders of what Ray comes from, Abby’s blunt talk and strong Boston accent remind him daily that a change in coasts is not really a change in life.

Indeed, Ray’s work among the privileged contains constant reminders that he may be around them, he may be attractive to some of them (which is a big issue in his marriage) — but he is not one of them. But it is not just Ray’s life that is in play here; Abby has upwardly mobile dreams for their children, and those dreams can depend on what Ray does — and whom he offends in doing it. Ray can be surprisingly soft-hearted — only that seems to happen only with people who can help him the least.

One could argue that there’s a certain obvious message at work here, that the celebrity fixer cannot fix problems in his own life. But the cast and crew carry it off very well, at least in the episodes I have seen. Schreiber conveys a quietly lethal side to Ray in clear contrast to Voight’s more openly poisonous Mickey. Malcomson is riveting, and Biderman’s storytelling kept me wanting to see more.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him after June 30 at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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