The specter of HBO’s still-mourned organized crime family drama The Sopranos, which arguably kicked off the latest golden age of television, can be glimpsed in the foundations of nearly every cable drama that has come since, ushering in an era of the male antihero that has permeated the popular culture.
The Sopranos’s mischievous, malevolent spirit flits through Showtime’s outstanding new drama Ray Donovan, which premieres Sunday night at 10 p.m. Starring Liev Schreiber as the titular character, the show—created by Ann Biderman, who also created the gripping, gritty cop drama Southland—deftly balances matters of crime and punishment, love and enmity, savagery and civility. It’s a drama that’s about the push and pull of the domestic and the professional spheres. And it must be said that Ray Donovan is also about the battle between good and evil, often within the same man.
Schreiber’s Ray is a Hollywood fixer, the sort of hard-boiled figure that you might have to call when you’re a celeb being blackmailed by a transgendered hooker or a basketball star waking up in bed next to a dead woman after a night of heavy drug use. Escaping his rough-and-tumble Irish Catholic past in South Boston, Ray has established himself as an imposing if shady figure in the boardrooms and back lots of Los Angeles, equal parts deterrent and enforcer. The rich and famous—portrayed largely as venal, vapid parasites—pay him handsomely to deal with the messes in which they find themselves. And Ray deals with everything with vicious panache, imposing whether he’s wielding a baseball bat or an unspoken threat.
Ray’s talents in this area have allowed him to set up his family in the tony enclave of Calabasas, where his children and his wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson), exist in a bubble of privilege that is a far cry from their parents’ formative years. Across the city in Hollywood, Ray’s brothers, Bunchy (Dash Mihok) and Terry (British actor Eddie Marsan, excellent here), operate a struggling boxing gym, supported by their brother. Bunchy is a self-described “sexual anorexic,” a recovering addict who was molested by a priest as a boy. Terry is a sullen and solitary ex-boxer with Parkinson’s Disease who is attracted to his nurse, Frances (Brooke Smith), but too afraid to act on it.
Ray’s past is a bit of an enigma, teased out in little morsels over the course of the first few episodes. His sister killed herself as a teenager, and her death continues to paralyze the Donovan boys in intriguing ways. Ray is additionally concealing something terrible, having colluded with his business partners, Ezra Goodman (Elliott Gould) and Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson), in order to put his own father in prison 20 years earlier. But Ray’s demons come home when his father, Mickey (Jon Voight), gets out of prison five years earlier than expected and heads to Los Angeles to exact revenge upon those who destroyed his life. Voight radiates ferocious intensity here, rendering the surprisingly charming Mickey as a volatile presence in the Donovan clan; his every move is unpredictable and laced with danger. Loud, overbearing, and unseemly, he is the very personification of the human id in a mock turtleneck and gold chain.
Schreiber is utterly fantastic as Ray Donovan, inhabiting the character with the sort of loose-limbed crawl of a panther, all taut sinew and ready to pounce at any moment. It’s impossible not to see the sea-churn of conflict within the character in every scene, particularly once Mickey shows up in Los Angeles, threatening the safety of his family. Schreiber can do a lot with very little dialogue, as he turns on those in his path with a Gorgon-like stare; his presence fills the screen physically and psychically.
Mickey and Ray’s charged son/father dynamic gives both actors a muscular, worthy opponent in the other; they seem to size each other up every time they walk into the same room, circling each other with murderous concentration. Voight hasn’t delivered this visceral a performance in ages. Guided by his desires, Mickey’s first action after being released from prison is to murder the priest he believes molested his son. But Mickey is himself responsible for a host of distasteful actions and his involvement in his children’s lives is anything but positive. Voight makes Mickey a viscerally physical presence, just as Schreiber does with Ray (you can see the father in the son at times), whether he’s spending time with his grandchildren, snorting coke, or—as he does in an amazing Episode 4 sequence—dancing the night away. Voight makes Mickey’s need to make up for the time stolen for him as an all-consuming drive, permeating everything he does and filling every act of kindness with a dark purpose.
The supporting cast is equally fantastic. Katherine Moennig’s Lena, Ray’s sardonic lesbian employee, is already a favorite, as is Steven Bauer’s menacing Avi, who proves his thirst for violence in one scene by wielding a staple gun with flair. Gould is sensational as the mournful Ezra, whose wife has died and who suddenly believes they are being punished for their transgressions. Marsan delivers a stirring performance as Terry, internalized and stoic, while Mihok renders Bunchy’s stunted adolescence as fiercely tragic; his dynamic with his black half-brother, Daryll (Pooch Hall), becomes something unique over time.
Malcomson (Deadwood) delivers a knockout performance as Ray’s eternally put-upon wife, Abby, who can’t understand why their neighbors look down upon them despite their trappings of wealth. Her frustrations lend Ray Donovan some further emotional heft. Whereas The Sopranos portrayed Tony Soprano’s suburban home as his kingdom, Ray and Abby seem out of place in their cavernous Calabasas mansion, frequently disturbed by their neighbors’ loud noise and condescension. She and Ray are outsiders among the insiders.
Biderman, who has an amazing ear for dialogue and verbal cues, has the Hollywood patois down pat. Characters engage in just the sort of patter audiences would expect from the creator of Southland, and there’s a frisson in the juxtaposition of the South Boston accent with the clipped voices of the Hollywood elite. It’s yet another indicator of being out of place, one keenly felt when Abby and Ray take their children, Bridget (Kerris Dorsey) and Conor (Devon Bagby), to look at an elite Bel-Air private school. (“It’s not like you were conceived immaculate,” Abby jokes to her children in the car after singing Marvin Gaye. “Immaculately,” Bridget replies dismissively. “I know,” says Abby flatly. “I was making a joke.”) The only time the dialogue rings false is when the action shifts away from the adults and onto the teens; while the dialogue in those scenes strives for verisimilitude, it feels strangely forced.
But that’s one of very few quibbles I have with the Ray Donovan, which presents a fascinating portrait of warring family members and criminal behavior. The result is something extraordinary and compelling, a first-rate drama for Showtime that arrives just as the pay cable network bids farewell to its highly-rated Dexter. While it’s too soon to tell whether Ray Donovan will rank alongside The Sopranos in the pantheon of timeless drama, this is television to watch with the phone off and the second screens tucked away, a testosterone-fueled drive through the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, one punctuated by danger at every intersection.